Conservation Changes Overview

Farm Bill 2018: Conservation Changes Overview


Jeffrey Hunt
University of Maryland
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics  

Both the House and the Senate bill promote the evolution of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). To maintain roughly equal spending relative to the baseline, both the House and the Senate see an increase in allowed acreage paired with a decrease in payments versus the land rental rate compared to current policy. While this will allow the government to obtain a higher return on environmental protection on its CRP spending, it does mean that farmers may see up to 20% less on new enrollments depending on other bids in their area. To maximize benefits specifically to water quality and wildlife, the Senate bill prioritizes 40 and 30% of continuous sign ups to water quality and wildlife enhancement, respectively. The House bill goes a bit further in order to pay for its much larger expansion (24 million acres expanding to 29 million acres vs. the Senate expansion to 25 million acres) by also limiting cost-sharing for practices like water quality management, tree thinning, forest management, and seed purchases.

Other notable changes from the farmers’ perspective include fewer restrictions on haying and grazing on CRP land in both bills, as well as the House bill allowing farmers to enter land from expiring contracts into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in their final year of CRP or prepare to transition into organic food production in the final 3 years of the CRP contract. Lastly, the Senate bill establishes a new contract called a ‘Conservation Reserve Easement’, which effectively is the permanent retirement of conservation parcels.

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) differs radically between the Senate and House Farm Bills. The Senate Bill roughly keeps the program as it is, although limits spending by about a billion dollars by decreasing the enrollments in the program from 10 million acres to 8.8 million acres. The House bill officially repeals the program in its entirety, saving over $12 billion over the next decade, although much of that savings is subsumed into EQIP, which is now meant to enroll many of the farms previously enrolled in CSP. One interesting new focus found in the Senate bill is a prioritization of weather volatility adaptation, which previously did not qualify as a practice covered by CSP.

Mostly due to the repeal of CSP in the House bill, EQIP is envisioned as a much larger program over the next decade in the House Bill than in the Senate Bill. The House bills sees spending on EQIP increasing by almost $8 billion over the decade as EQIP absorbs many of the payments given to farmers for specific conservation practices. Maintaining a new focus on weather adaptation, the Senate bill changes the stated purpose of EQIP to include adapting to and mitigating against climate change. The Senate bill also orders the USDA Secretary to undertake a Soil Health Demonstration Project that includes incentives to encourage producers to adopt practices that improve soil health. Both bills also contain language allowing grants to be used for more experimental and innovative conservation approaches

Note that this overview and the charts provided in links only address the CRP, CSP, and EQIP. Both the Senate and House bills make significant changes to smaller-scale programs, like doubling the size of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program and nearly doubling the size of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. Both bills eliminate minor programs that were intended to be temporary or were meant as exploratory studies. One of these studies, the Conservation Corridor Demonstration Program, was specific to the Delmarva region.

Note that even with these changes, there is no overall spending change on conservation compared to the baseline in the Senate Bill. The House bill overall slashes $795 million in spending as the money from eliminating the CSP is not entirely redistributed among other conservation programs.