How the farm bill can scale conservation

These USDA programs boost agricultural resilience and productivity

Update: On December 20, the 2018 farm bill was signed into law. It delivers sweeping bipartisan support for clean air and water.

Aligning federal policy with proven best practices and technologies will allow USDA to meet the demands of 21st century agriculture.

Callie Eideberg, Senior Policy Manager, Sustainable Agriculture

The farm bill is the most comprehensive set of policies for U.S. agriculture, covering a broad range of federal programs from crop insurance to conservation innovations.

Farm bill conservation programs provide valuable opportunities for farmers and ranchers to steward natural resources and minimize harmful impacts to water and climate – all while sustaining the economic viability of America’s farms and ranches.

The current farm bill expired on September 30, 2018, and the next farm bill presents Congress with three key opportunities to improve voluntary conservation programs and maximize return on investment – for federal dollars, participating farmers and environmental outcomes.

Promote public-private partnerships

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program harnesses the power of public-private partnerships to deliver measurable conservation results and make the best use of taxpayer dollars.

By bringing a broad range of stakeholders together – including agricultural retailers, corporations, universities and nonprofit organizations – RCPP projects increase the reach and sustained impact of USDA programs.

With these recommendations, RCPP will deliver greater bang for the buck.

  • Direct funding toward projects in high-priority watersheds and ensure projects have measurable environmental outcomes.
  • Allow flexibility in approved conservation practices if applicants can provide scientific evidence of the environmental benefits of a new approach.
  • Provide USDA with the necessary Technical Assistance and administrative funds to implement the program.
  • Encourage innovative financing mechanisms like pay for performance or environmental markets.

Accelerate innovation

On-farm innovations often move faster than the process for updating the conservation practice standards that guide the implementation of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service programs or the good farming practices that determine whether farmers receive full crop insurance indemnity payments. These delays hamstring producers and NRCS staff alike.

The next farm bill can direct USDA to streamline the process for integrating science and technology advancements into NRCS programs – and in doing so, ensure federal dollars support the most effective stewardship practices.

Reward sustainable production

Conservation programs should reward farmers for being good stewards of their land and water, but without measurable outcomes, there is no way to know if federal dollars are paying for efforts or results.

The farm bill can authorize a simple but powerful solution: Instruct USDA to aggregate and anonymize the data it already manages and make it available to trusted researchers while protecting producer privacy.

Using formerly siloed data, researchers can quantify the impact of stewardship practices on crop yields, soil health and risk reduction. Farmers and their advisers will gain valuable information on how conservation practices could save their operation money and increase resilience. This data could also lead to evidence-based policies that provide cost savings to the crop insurance program.

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