You wouldn't know it from the criticism leveled by environmental groups, but the 2002 farm bill contains significant increases in funding for existing and new conservation programs.
The conservation title, or Title II, of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 doesn't create as much alphabet soup as some previous farm bills, but it does provide an additional $17.1 billion over the next 10 years for programs that will help farmers take better care of their land.
“This farm bill provides a record level of support for conservation, an 80 percent increase, 85 percent of which will be used for programs on working farmlands,” said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. “And it adds new programs to preserve wetlands and improve soil and water quality.”
When she made those comments at a May 21 press briefing, Veneman was responding to critics of the new farm bill who charged that its funding was earmarked primarily for wealthy row crop producers.
“We're talking about conservation programs for working farmlands, conservation programs like EQIP that can help livestock producers,” she said. “I think it's critical that the public understand that a lot of the money that's going out under this farm bill is going to help the environment and help farmers be better stewards of the environment as we know they already are.”
Environmental and conservation groups obviously did not get all the funding and all the new programs they wanted in the farm bill — they had proposed diverting another $4 billion primarily from commodity programs for a total of $21 billion in additional spending over 10 years.
But as President Bush said when he signed the new farm bill, “It's not a perfect bill, I know that. But you know, no bill ever is. There's no such thing as a perfect bill because they are all results of compromise.”
The conservation title addresses a number of issues, ranging from demands for higher spending and acreage caps on older programs such as the Conservation Reserve and Wetlands Reserve to providing nearly $2 billion for a new Conservation Security Program that will take effect in 2003.
The Conservation Security Program. or CSP, which was introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, would provide payments to growers or landowners at one of three levels, depending on the number of conservation practices they implement on their operations.
Using so-called Tier I practices, farmers would receive $25,000 per year; with Tier II, $35,000 per year; and Tier III, $45,000. The payment amounts would be subject to the farm bill's new payment limit rules.
The new conservation title also greatly increases spending for previously little known items such as the Farmland Protection Program (FPP), which is designed to help prevent urban encroachment into farmland. The title provides $1 billion over the next 10 years compared to the $53 million Congress earmarked when it began the program in 1996.
For the Conservation Reserve, the new title increases the acreage cap from 36.4 million to 39.2 million and re-authorizes the continuous signup provision where land can be enrolled at any time rather than during enrollment periods.
It also expands the CRP Wetland Enrollment Pilot Program, which was established in the 2001 Agricultural Appropriation Act. The new language extends the program to all states and raises the enrollment cap to 1 million acres, which are included in the overall CRP acreage cap.
The title increases the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) acreage cap to 2.275 million acres at a cost of $1.5 billion over 10 years. Conservationists have long complained that the WRP was too limited in scope to accomplish “meaningful wetlands protection.”
The new farm bill also creates a new Grasslands Reserve Program with funding of $254 million. Up to 2 million acres of “restored, improved or natural grassland, rangeland and pasture, including prairie,” may be enrolled under contracts of 10, 15, 20 or 30 years.
Under the EQIP or Environmental Quality Incentives Program mentioned by Secretary Veneman, funding will be gradually increased so that by 2007 it reaches the $1.3 billion annually originally envisioned by Congress when it began the program. The new language targets 60 percent of annual program funding at livestock producers.
The new conservation title also provides a 10-fold increase in funding for the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) over the life of the new farm bill. It mandates funding of $15 million in FY 2002, $30 million in 2003, $60 million in 2004 and $85 million annually in 2005-2007.
Under the new Farmland Protection Program, or FPP, money will be spent to purchase development rights on farmland, ensuring that the land remains permanently in agriculture. America currently loses more than 1 million acres of farm and ranch land each year to development, according to American Farmland Trust, one of the program's principal backers.
“This is a major breakthrough for the future of our nation's farmland,” said American Farmland Trust President Ralph Grossi. “In committing $1 billion for farmland protection, Congress responded to the needs and demands of farmers and ranchers nationwide. Farmland protection now has a seat at the roundtable of agricultural policy — it's a major program addressing a significant national need.”
Since the FPP is a matching program, states and local governments will have an incentive to develop and expand conservation easement programs, leveraging federal money to protect more farms and ranches.
For a comparison of and listing of new details for conservation programs under the old and new farm bills, click on USDA's new farm bill Web site at http://www.ers.usda.gov/Features/farmbill/titles/titleIIconservation.htm.