A new bipartisan Senate proposal to reform USDA’s three largest conservation programs departs sharply from what is expected to be in the House farm bill while putting an emphasis on protecting water quality. 

The Give Our Resources the Opportunity to Work (GROW) Act would freeze the Conservation Reserve Program at a maximum of 24 million acres while more tightly restricting payment rates and the types of land that can be enrolled in the program. 

The bill, being introduced by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, with three colleagues on the Agriculture Committee, also would keep the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program as separate programs and maintain CSP’s annual enrollment targets and EQIP’s funding. 

By contrast, the House Agriculture Committee’s draft farm bill is expected to fold CSP into EQIP, eliminate the 60-percent EQIP setaside for livestock, and increase CRP to as much as 30 million acres.  Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., also has proposed to increase the CRP limit to 30 million acres.

The GROW Act is co-sponsored by Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Ernst’s fellow Iowa Republican, Chuck Grassley. 

CRP “has strayed from its congressional intent of targeting and removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production,” said Ernst. “Rather, large parcels, sometimes whole farms, of productive farmland are being enrolled into CRP as a result of low commodity prices and high yearly rental payments.”

She said the bill would “restore the intent” of CSP and EQIP “while helping farmers and ranchers protect soil and water resources.”

The bill would provide new CSP payments for cover crops, resource-conserving crop rotations and management-intensive rotational grazing. A new CLEAR (Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers) option would be created within continuous CRP to promote water quality.

The bill seeks to increase the number of beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers in CSP and EQIP by increasing the set-aside from 5 to 15 percent. 

Brown said the bill is “good for farmers, it’s good for taxpayers, and it’s good for water quality and the environment.”

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