The 2018 farm bill breaks new ground for conservation and resilience

David Festa

 President Trump just signed into law the 2018 farm bill – an $867-billion piece of legislation on which millions of Americans depend for global trade, food production, nutrition assistance and conservation funding.

Most people don’t know that the farm bill is, in fact, the single largest federal source of funding for conservation on private working lands.

Importantly, Republicans and Democrats worked together to make sure those funds didn’t take a cut. But the 2018 farm bill went even further to recognize the role that America’s vast farms and ranches can play in building resilient land and water systems that will allow people and nature to thrive on a changing planet.

Here are two key reasons why I believe the 2018 farm bill could be a watershed moment for conservation in America.

1. It signals the start of a new conservation era

The 2018 farm bill is the first of its kind in that it recognizes that the agricultural system will need to adapt to a changing climate. It does this in two key ways.

First, it charges the ag sector with adapting quickly to new science and technology.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture must issue a report to Congress within the next year about how the agency could bring its siloed data into a single database without compromising privacy. Such a database would bring the big data revolution to agriculture. Researchers will be able to gain valuable insights into how conservation practices affect farm and ranch profitability and risk management in the face of market fluctuations and climate change.

The farm bill will also modernize the standards that define how USDA implements farm bill conservation programs to reflect the latest scientific, engineering and technological innovations that farmers are already using.

Second, it places a new emphasis on soil health and climate resilience.

Throughout the farm bill, conservation program descriptions have been updated to include soil health and carbon sequestration as targeted outcomes, earmarking $25 million annually for on-farm conservation innovation trials that test emerging conservation approaches.

These upgrades come at a critical moment as farmers are dealing with increasingly costly droughts, floods, fires and freezes – on top of all of the other day-to-day stressors.

2. It’s the first such bill Trump signed into law

The 2018 farm bill was a truly bipartisan bill, and that’s exactly why it was so successful.

The Senate and House passed the farm bill with overwhelming majorities – 87-13 and 369-47, respectively – making it essentially veto-proof. These historic margins demonstrate that conservation remains a bedrock American value.

But this kind of victory for farmers and the environment wouldn’t have been possible without the bipartisan leadership of Sens. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat;  Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas; John Thune, a South Dakota Republican; Amy Klobucher, a Minnesota Democrat; Joni Ernst, Republican from Iowa; and Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat. In the House, Reps. Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota; Mike Conaway, Republican of Texas; Jim Costa, a California Democrat; and New Mexico Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham led those efforts. 

Their achievements in passing the farm bill are a testament to the power of collaboration – of both sides of the aisle working together to forge solutions. Fortunately, the 2018 farm bill provides a path toward a more resilient future – both for the ag sector and for all of us who rely on abundant food and clean water.

This holiday season, I’m especially grateful to the producers and policymakers who made this farm bill happen, and I look forward to working with them to implement it in the new year.

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