A focus on precision conservation in a new farm bill?

Sara Wyant Special to the Farm Forum
Farm Forum

Over the last few decades, U.S. farmers have made great strides in conserving soil and enhancing water quality, but there’s a growing concern that more needs to be done. But how can you accomplish more when the amount of federal and state dollars to assist in this effort may be at a standstill or likely to decline?

That’s been one of the key questions for a group of veteran conservation leaders who have been meeting for about two years with the McGraw Center for Conservation Leadership, says long-time conservation policy expert Alex Echols, who served as the group’s team leader. Their answers are now part of a new white paper, “Heartland Waters Initiative, Advancing Precision Conservation in Agriculture” which they hope will gain consideration in the next farm bill.

Several familiar names from conservation circles are on the team, including Chris Adamo, former Chief of Staff on the Senate Agriculture Committee under Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; Dave Gagner, Director of Government Relations and External Affairs at National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; Lynn Tjeerdsma, Senior Policy Advisor for Sen. John Thune, R-S.D; and Roger Wolf, Director of Environmental Programs and Services at Iowa Soybean Association.

“We really believe that, if we can align the economic opportunities with the conservation opportunities, we can significantly increase adoption,” says Echols.

A key theme of the white paper is not necessarily more money but the use of science and technology, like yield monitors and GPS, to more precisely focus conservation investments where they can generate the most economic and resource “bang for the buck.” The report also calls for the creation of a new finance mechanism to fund conservation projects.

“We should move beyond government subsidies and enable large-scale investments from multiple sectors. Permit holders outside of agriculture, such as wastewater treatment facilities or industry can meet environmental performance requirements at a lower cost,” the report notes, while proposing a revolving “agricultural conservation fund” to be authorized through the farm bill.

In all, the white paper offers nine different strategies to improve conservation. Other recommendations include: countercyclical payments and insurance reductions to participating producers, improved water management practices, creation of a targeted conservation investment grant programs with states; adjustments in terms for conservation actions, more research on performance outcomes, and outreach to renters and non-operating landlords.

The biggest challenge for the conservation community – or others who would like to increase or hold their own in the next farm bill – comes down to money. Some lawmakers view the conservation title, where funding was steadily increasing until about 2008-2009, as a convenient place to make funding cuts. And as we’ve reported previously, the amount of funding available for a new farm bill is likely to be flat at best.

The “wish list” of new farm program requests is already growing and includes more funding for cotton producers and dairymen, export promotion, an Animal Disease and Disaster Prevention Program, expansion of the Conservation Reserve Program and increased funding for research – just to name a few.

In fact, the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research that was created in the current farm bill, is one of 37 programs that were authorized in the 2014 farm bill but have no funding baseline after the bill expires in 2018. These programs, which also include programs for conservation, bioenergy, rural development, organics, military veterans and farmers markets, had estimated mandatory spending of about $2.6 billion over the five-year life of the farm bill, according to a Congressional Research Report on these programs.

So, if lawmakers want to continue any or all 37 programs in the next farm bill, they will need to find offsets to pay for their continued costs.