Center tracks conservation legislation ahead of next farm bill


By Kate Hansen, former staff member

This is the first installment in a new series, “Farm Bill Bulletin” which will provide intermittent updates on the development and status of our nation’s next farm bill. Future versions will cover topics such as small meat processing and local foods.

Approximately every five years, the U.S. Congress passes a package of legislation with a consequential impact on rural America: the farm bill. The current farm bill was enacted in December 2018, and is set to expire on Sept. 30.

The farm bill consists of 12 sections—called titles—that set funding levels and guidelines for a wide range of programs, including conservation, rural development, crop insurance, credit, and nutrition. Developed by the House and Senate agriculture committees, farm bill legislation goes through rigorous debate as lawmakers work together to address their constituents’ needs.

Conservation, specifically on working agricultural lands, has remained a top priority for the Center for Rural Affairs. In addition to conserving valuable natural resources, such as water and soil, conservation practices implemented by producers offer risk management and economic benefits, particularly in the face of a changing climate.

The farm bill process includes the introduction of marker bills, which focus on a specific topic narrower in scope than the full farm bill. If successful, these bills garner enough support to have their provisions included in the final package.

The timeline of the coming farm bill cannot be certain, however the coming months will likely include hearings, information gathering, and the drafting of legislation. After each agriculture committee has drafted its version of the bill, it is put to a vote before going to the full Senate or House floor. The Senate and House must work together to create a version of the bill that satisfies both chambers, and vote to pass the legislation before sending it to the president for a final signature.

A number of marker bills relating to conservation have been introduced since the 118th Congress convened in January. The list below provides a sampling of legislation with potential impacts within our areas of interest. More marker bills are likely to be introduced in the coming months, and our staff will continue to track and engage with them.

S.1016, H.R.1840 Agriculture Resilience Act: Introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), this legislation seeks to address the impact of climate change on agriculture. Its provisions span national goals, research, soil health, farmland preservation and farm viability, pasture-based livestock, on-farm renewable energy, and food loss and waste. Notably, it includes elements that would impact programs including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), and the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP).

The legislation has been cosponsored by 10 Democrats and one Independent in the Senate and 34 Democrats in the House. Despite their many cosponsors, these bills are not bipartisanly supported. This is likely to present a challenge in a divided Congress, and from farm state Republicans, who have significant influence in farm bill negotiations.

S.732, H.R.1645 Biochar Research Network Act: Introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA), this legislation would amend the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act of 1998 to direct the secretary of agriculture to establish a national biochar research network. To read more about biochar, click here.

The legislation has been cosponsored by two Democrats and one Republican in the Senate and seven Democrats and two Republicans in the House. Biochar continues to attract the attention of stewardship-minded agriculturalists and many feel it holds considerable promise. Advancing this technology may prove to be a smart investment going forward.

S.720, H.F.1459 Producing Responsible Energy and Conservation Incentives and Solutions for the Environment (PRECISE) Act: Introduced by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) and Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-IA), this legislation seeks to leverage incentives for the adoption of precision agriculture equipment and technology. Notably, provisions relating to EQIP include increased payments for precision agriculture practices, and would allow producers getting EQIP payments to receive a loan or loan guarantee to cover costs for the same practice. The bills would also add precision agriculture language to CSP.

The legislation has been cosponsored by one Democrat in the Senate and five Democrats and six Republicans in the House. It is difficult to ignore the importance of precision farming to production agriculture, and this farm bill will need to include provisions that address this reality. This legislation enlists working lands conservation programs as vehicles to incorporate the new and efficient technologies precision farming can offer. Real barriers to adoption remain—including connectivity, accessibility, and cost—but this legislation is a step in the right direction.

S.719, H.R.1495 Precision Agriculture Loan Program Act: Introduced by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) and Rep. Randy Feenstra (R-IA), this legislation would amend the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 to establish a precision agriculture loan program.

The legislation has been cosponsored by one Democrat in the Senate and five Democrats and three Republicans in the House. As stated above, key barriers to the adoption of precision farming technologies must be recognized and addressed. This legislation has the potential to expand the number of early adopters in high-production counties and increase demand for local connectivity.

S.834 Advancing Cutting Edge (ACE) Agriculture Act: Introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), this bill would amend the National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Teaching Policy Act of 1977 to reauthorize the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority.

The legislation has been cosponsored by Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS). Expanding the size and scope of this program to better account for climate impacts is a good investment.

S.658 - EQIP Improvement Act: Introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), this bill would amend the Food Security Act of 1985 to make adjustments to EQIP. Provisions include changing an existing $450,000 payment limit to $150,000, and establishing a payment limit based on a percentage of associated practice costs. This would include a 75% payment limit for most practices, and a 40% payment cap for select practices, including a pond, waste storage facility, waste treatment lagoon, or dam.

The legislation has been cosponsored by one Republican and one Democrat in the Senate. There are several ways EQIP can be improved, and implementing payment limits to ensure benefits no longer flow to the biggest operations should be at the top of the list. For proper program operation, however, this proposal should include or be paired with legislation that increases access to small- and mid-sized farmers.

S.900, H.R.2719 - Conservation and Innovative Climate Partnership Act: Introduced by Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA), this legislation would amend the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990. This amendment would establish a competitive grant program for land-grant colleges and universities to support agricultural producers in adopting conservation and innovative climate practices.

The legislation has been cosponsored by two Democrats and one Republican in the Senate and one Democrat in the House. Many farmers and ranchers rely on land-grant universities as a trusted source of research and analysis. This bill would help ensure this continues by providing support for institutions engaged in identifying and promoting innovative climate practices.

S.1400, H.R.3036 - Increased Technical Service Provider (TSP) Access Act: Introduced by Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) and Rep. James Baird (R-IN), this legislation would amend the Food Security Act of 1985 to modify the delivery of technical assistance. Its provisions include establishing a process to approve non-Federal TSP certifying entities and streamlining TSP certification for entities with particular qualifications, such as certified crop advisors.

The legislation has been cosponsored by one Republican and one Democrat in the Senate and one Democrat in the House. We recognize the acute need for expanded technical support for our nations' farmers and ranchers, particularly those interested in implementing conservation on their operations. While the need for third party providers at this stage is indisputable, it is important that this initiative complements, instead of replaces, the role of USDA employees.

H.R.1824 - Food and Farm Act: Introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), this bill seeks to reform the safety net for farmers and ranchers, enhance soil, water, and habitat conservation, encourage beginning farmers and ranchers, strengthen nutrition for Americans, support agriculture research and innovation, reduce food waste, improve animal welfare, and invest in regional food systems. Notably, changes are listed to CSP, EQIP, and crop insurance programs.

The legislation has been cosponsored by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ). Rep. Blumenauer has a reputation for offering creative solutions to improve the industry, and this is no exception. However, its provisions lack bipartisan appeal.

S.179, H.R.651 - Cultivating Organic Matter through the Promotion Of Sustainable Techniques (COMPOST) Act: Introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA), this legislation would require the designation of composting as a conservation practice and activity, and promote grants and loan guarantees for composting facilities and programs. Notably, it would add composting language to CSP and EQIP.

The legislation has been cosponsored by two Democrats in the Senate and 13 Democrats in the House. It takes a novel approach to encouraging a closed-loop production cycle that may be attractive to small-scale producers.

S.98 - Agriculture Innovation Act: Introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), this bill requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to identify, collect, link, and analyze certain data on the impact of conservation and other production practices on working land profitability, including their effect on enhancing crop yields, soil health, ecosystem services, and other risk-reducing factors.

This legislation has been cosponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-SD). Much of the research being done into the efficacy of innovative practices is sponsored by organizations with a business interest in the results. Lawmakers and other stakeholders need objective, accurate data to determine which practices are worthy of further investment. This proposal fills an important void.

S.1509: Introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), this bill would amend the Food Security Act of 1985 to extend and reform the Conservation Reserve Program. Bill text has yet to be published, but it will likely encourage landowners to enroll sensitive, marginal lands for the long term, while keeping productive land available for agricultural production.