Every five years, Congress works to pass a farm bill to determine our country’s path forward on food, agriculture, and conservation policy. The bill impacts rural and urban communities and economies, food security and sovereignty, human health, and the environment and climate. The conservation title of the upcoming 2023 farm bill will be critical to improving and expanding access to voluntary, incentive-based conservation across the country. 

Conservation has never been more important. Stakeholders across the food system – from producers, non-governmental organizations, corporations, and governments – recognize the importance and impact of land stewardship. Conservation and sustainable production practices reduce harmful emissions, improve soil health and productivity, enhance water quality, and increase resilience. By regenerating, not exhausting, our limited natural resources we can advance food security, maintain productive lands for generations to come, mitigate climate change and generate critical environmental outcomes. 

However, there are no “one-size fits all” solutions. An effective conservation delivery system relies on grassroots, locally led, voluntary initiatives. America’s 3,000 conservation districts convene community stakeholders in all parts of the country to identify, prioritize, and tackle their most critical natural resource issues. They work with farmers, ranchers, and forest stewards to design and implement the most effective system of practices – such as no-till, cover crops, filter and buffer strips, and restoring native plants – that promote sustainable land use and protect natural resources for future generations. 

As the President of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD), I represent this incredible network and ensure that their voices are heard by lawmakers and conservation leaders. Any legislation impacting local communities must be equitable, inclusive, and shaped by grassroots advocacy. This past March, more than 250 conservation district leaders convened in Washington, DC to ensure that their elected leaders understand not only their needs, but also the local and national importance of their conservation efforts, and their role in safeguarding food security and achieving lasting environmental outcomes. Our members traveled from as far as Hawaii and Guam to advocate for bolstering the locally developed and led approach to conservation. 

The past year has been historic for conservation and there are more important developments on the horizon. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provides $18 billion for conservation programs and $1 billion for conservation technical assistance. These investments answered a longstanding call from NACD to bolster these highly effective programs that were only able to support one in every three producers that applied. NACD is also a recipient of a Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities grant and will be working with producers to scale sustainable production systems and facilitate access to growing climate-smart markets. All of these investments can produce a substantial return in the form of clean water, air, and productive lands, as well as more efficient and sustainable production methods.  

The 2023 farm bill provides an exciting opportunity to ensure that producers have the resources and tools required to adopt practices that improve their operations and the health of our ecosystems and communities. NACD’s 2023 farm bill recommendations request keeping Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) conservation investments within the conservation title of the farm bill. Retaining recent investments in NRCS conservation programs is absolutely critical to extending financial resources and technical assistance to thousands of new producers, as well as those who applied to participate in programs such as EQIP but were not accepted due to oversubscription. 

NACD also believes that the farm bill should bolster the locally led approach in order to ensure that communities’ unique natural resource concerns and priorities are effectively addressed. For example, some CSP determinations and selections can be made by local conservation leaders, RCPP projects should be coordinated with Local Working Groups, and nation-wide conservation mandates should be minimized. Simplifying applications, contracting, and implementation processes across conservation programs will also help more and new producers put conservation on the ground. NACD has many more farm bill priorities, including requests to support tribal and underserved communities, increase funding for NRCS watershed protection programs, bolster CRP incentives, and expand urban forestry. 

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2022 was a historic year for conservation, but this year, and the next several years, will be more important. Conservation districts, USDA, and our conservation system partners must deliver on recent conservation investments, and we’re working hard to do so. Congress must also deliver by developing a 2023 farm bill that keeps NRCS investments in conservation and increases the flexibility and local administration of programs. I’m excited for the year ahead, and I look forward to working with all of my federal and local partners to support our country’s conservation delivery system.

NACD President Kim LaFleur is the state advisor and program director for the Massachusetts FFA Association and an independent consultant to agricultural organizations and associations. LaFleur and her family own and operate Mayflower Cranberries, a 112-acre cranberry farm and agri-tourism business. LaFleur also breeds and shows World Grand Champion miniature horses and serves as the chair on the Plymouth County Conservation District’s board.

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