This week the U.S. Senate passed a Farm Bill with strong bi-partisan support — a particularly important achievement given the difficulty of getting anything done in Congress these days. This was only possible because of the willingness of Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Ranking Member Roberts (R-Kansas) to focus on issues rather than politics. They and their staffs did a remarkable job in reaching out to stakeholders over the last year to help draft a bill that continues and, often, improves upon existing Farm Bill conservation programs despite the reductions in funding that have come with nation’s budget deficit crisis.
The Conservation Title of the Farm Bill has become the most important single piece of conservation legislation in the country. The bill passed by the Senate includes more than $5.5 billion a year for conservation programs. It works by providing funding to farmers, ranchers and forest land owners to restore land not suitable for farming to a more natural condition and to help them to better manage their lands to reduce adverse impacts on water quality, productive soils and wildlife. These kinds of partnerships with agricultural landowners have produced positive and tangible results since the first such programs were created in response to the dust bowl of the 1930s. The Farm Bill Conservation Title programs are even more successful today because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is directing more of the funds to address priority areas of critical water resources and fish and wildlife habitat.
From The Nature Conservancy’s perspective the Senate bill has several particularly good features:
- It continues the Grassland and Wetland Reserve Programs which purchase easements from farmers over land that is important for wildlife habitat and the protection of water resources. These programs are used extensively in the conservation of exceptional landscapes across the country like the Everglades Headwaters, the Dakota Grasslands and the Chesapeake Bay.
- It increases the ability of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to focus its funding in high priority areas in a way that better fits these programs to specific places and to the needs of individual landowners. The new Regional Partnership Program is an example of this approach.
- It continues to make forest land owners eligible for the same sorts of programs that have been available to farmers and ranchers thus extending the reach and impact of Farm Bill activities.
- It includes “sod-saver” provisions that discourage the breaking of ecologically valuable native prairie for row crop agriculture.
- And, in an important amendment to the bill, the legislation requires farmers receiving subsidies for crop insurance to maintain sound soil and water conservation practices.
The bill does all of this while still reducing its ten year cost by $23 billion. The Nature Conservancy would, of course, rather see more money in the Farm Bill, and budget cuts have and will hurt conservation, but the Senate Committee has set an example for others to follow by working in a bi-partisan manner to develop a bill that can accomplish conservation and other purposes while also addressing the pressing problem of the federal budget deficit.
Unfortunately, the House Budget Committee has proposed much deeper cuts to Farm Bill spending — cuts that in our view would jeopardize this country’s entire system of successful agricultural and forestry conservation programs. We must redouble our efforts to prevent any more cuts to the Farm Bill as the House takes up its version of the Farm Bill in the weeks ahead.
Last February the Conservancy joined with more than 640 other conservation, agricultural and forestry organizations and businesses from all across the country in writing to the Chairs and Ranking Members of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees to urge that they move forward with a Farm Bill this year.
We said that doing this would “result is real conservation with multiple benefits for every region of America. Not the least of these is helping landowners to stay on the land as stewards of America’s legacy of natural resources.” The Senate has now responded to this challenge. It is our hope that the House will move as swiftly and effectively as the Senate has done. This is critical in itself to America’s future, but can also demonstrate that our democracy can work to tackle complex problems even in difficult times.
[Image: Dramatic sky and clouds during a late Spring storm over farm near Papillion in eastern Nebraska. Image source: Chris Helzer/TNC]