The 2018 farm bill in the spotlight: Here's what you need to know

Callie Eideberg

As the farm bill moves through the House and Senate, it’s clear just how much is at stake. The massive, $867 billion piece of legislation includes conservation programs, nutrition assistance, global trade and crop insurance on which millions depend.

The bipartisan, urban and rural coalition that historically made it possible to pass legislation of this scope and scale has splintered. Lawmakers now only have until September to get a new bill across the finish line, or pass an extension of the current bill.

The farm bill is the largest source of conservation dollars for privately owned land in the United States, 40 percent of which is farmland. Growers and ranchers – and the natural resources they steward – need the legislation to pass in a timely manner.

For that to happen, the House and Senate need to draft bipartisan legislation that can pass both chambers. The bill that comes out of the conference committee should incentivize innovation and stewardship, and provide strong funding for conservation programs at a time when we need it more than ever.

Where the House farm bill succeeded and where it fell short

The House bill, H.R. 2 (115), provided much-needed improvements to specific conservation programs, a welcome development. Positive programmatic updates included:

  • Permanent funding for the Regional Conservation Partnerships Program, which lets local stakeholders propose conservation projects to the U.S Department of Agriculture and scale results through public-private partnerships.
  • Irrigation districts becoming eligible for USDA Environmental Quality Incentive Program contracts, or EQIP, which provide funding for drought resilience projects.
  • Funding for source water protection to help farmers reduce runoff and protect water supplies for downstream communities.

At the same time, however, the bill siphoned money from conservation programs to pay for unrelated initiatives. Rather than keeping cost savings from changes to the Conservation Stewardship Program and EQIP, for example, the bill rolled that money into non-environmental uses. 

In all, the House bill would have cut funding from conservation programs by an estimated $800 million over the next decade.

What the farm bill must deliver in 2018

Sustainable agriculture – and a strong, bipartisan farm bill – have never been more important.

Low commodity prices and extreme weather events diminish profitability, and the specter of trade wars and water quality lawsuits has created ever-more uncertainty and mental stress for our growers.

Voluntary conservation programs such as EQIP are an increasingly popular way for farmers to build operational resilience, maintain revenue and reduce the environmental footprint of farming.

But today, interest in such USDA programs vastly exceeds available funding. We look for the revised farm bill to maintain current funding and protect long-term investments.

These programs help farms and food supplies rebound quickly from climate and economic disruptions, such as the California wildfires and hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which caused upwards of $5.5 billion dollars of agricultural damage in 2017.

All eyes on lawmakers as mid-terms approach

Leaders of both parties have the opportunity to work together and invest in American farms.

First up, they can pave the way for big data to revolutionize on-farm conservation. USDA collects and manages data on soil health, conservation practices, yield, profitability, climate and weather – but this wealth of information sits in separate silos.

The farm bill can require USDA to aggregate and anonymize this data, and grant trusted researchers access to quantify the links between conservation and risk management. The results would help farmers, landowners, lenders and insurers make the economic case for good stewardship practices.

Will lawmakers step up to the plate and deliver? People back in their districts will want to know. 

As the House returns to the negotiating table and the Senate Agriculture Committee continues to work on its draft, this is a pivotal moment to invest in agricultural and conservation innovations for the 21st century.

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