Democrats are circulating a $28 billion plan to dramatically expand existing farm bill conservation programs while authorizing $5 billion in new direct payments to farmers who plant cover crops, according to a summary obtained by Agri-Pulse.

The cover crop payments would be routed through the Farm Service Agency, according to the document circulating among House Democrats. The payments would build on a temporary program that the Biden administration created using coronavirus relief funds. One source familiar with the negotiations over the plan said the cover crop payments are supposed to be about $25 an acre. 

The $28 billion is intended to be included in a massive budget reconciliation bill that Democrats are trying to pass to address climate change and domestic spending priorities. 

"We are leading the way on helping farmers tackle the climate crisis with a historic investment of $28 billion in the Build Back Better Budget for climate-smart agriculture—the largest investment in conservation since the Dust Bowl," Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said in a statement to Agri-Pulse.

"Our conservation programs are proven and popular with farmers, ranchers, and foresters. This will make a huge impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and is the equivalent of taking over 142 million cars off the road."

The conservation funding was not included in reconciliation provisions approved by the House Agriculture Committee earlier this month because of delays in getting cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

According to the document, the largest share of funding, $9 billion, would go to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to increase funding for initiating practices, including cover crops, nutrient management and other measures. EQIP provides cost-share assistance for purchasing equipment and implementing practices.

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Another $7.5 billion would go the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which leverages funding from non-federal sources for conservation projects.

The Conservation Stewardship Program, which provides annual payments to farmers who help offset the cost of maintaining conservation practices, would receive $4 billion.

Another $1.5 billion is earmarked for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which funds easements that provide long-term protections for agricultural lands.

An additional $600 million is set aside for measuring the greenhouse-gas reductions of conservation practices, and $200 million is designated for conservation technical assistance to provide advice to farmers.

Another source said the package could include authorization for a $5-per-acre payment to landlords as an incentive to plant cover crops on rented acres. The provision is not included in the summary. 

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