Senate Democrats are dramatically increasing funding for USDA's conservation technical assistance to farmers as part of the climate-smart agriculture provisions in the Build Back Better spending package.

A copy of the new Senate text of the bill’s agriculture provisions obtained by Agri-Pulse would earmark $2.35 billion for technical assistance provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, up from the $200 million set aside for that purpose in the House-passed bill.

Advocates of climate-based farming practices say it’s critical to provide farmers with the guidance and advice they need to apply for USDA’s conservation funding.

The legislation would authorize $21 billion in increased funding for farm bill conservation programs and create a new $5 billion program to pay farmers for planting cover crops. The legislation also would extend authorization for the conservation programs through 2031. Under the 2018 farm bill, their authorization is due to expire in 2023.

The new Senate text also would increase funding for USDA’s climate hubs to $100 million from the $50 million in the House-passed bill. The Senate measure leaves unchanged the $600 million earmarked for USDA to measure the impact of farming practices on greenhouse gas emissions.

The overall House bill, which would cost roughly $2 trillion, includes a range of climate measures as well as funding for child care, health care, universal Pre-K and family leave. Portions of the legislation are expected to be scaled back in the Senate in order to assure all 50 Democrats vote for it.

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Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has insisted that he wants to get the bill passed before the end of the year. But Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has indicated that he remains concerned that the bill would worsen inflation, and it’s unclear whether Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., will support quick passage of the legislation.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Agri-Pulse this weekend Republicans have been talking to Manchin and Sinema as well as Democratic leaders. "The fact that the two of them aren't on board yet is why they haven't called the vote yet. ... If neither Manchin nor Sinema get on board before Christmas there won't be a vote before Christmas," McConnell said. 

Senate Democrats also want to modestly increase the bill’s funding for climate-related ag research. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which leverages private funding for research projects, would get $285 million under the Senate measure, compared to $210 million under the House bill. Funding for grants through USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative would get the same increase, from $210 million to $285 million.

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