WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 2016 -- The failed effort to drive a stake through EPA’s WOTUS rule may have grabbed the headlines surrounding the omnibus appropriations bill, but farmers still stand to benefit from the bill’s funding of conservation programs.
And even though they didn’t get everything they wanted, farm groups and environmental advocates were generally pleased with the amount of money allocated for those programs, as well as with tax provisions that encourage conservation. (Click here to see a chart with numbers compiled by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, or NSAC.)
The bill maintained funding levels authorized in the 2014 farm bill for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which will allow for enrollment of 10 million new acres in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Under the CSP, farmers can be paid for using practices such as cover crops, rotational grazing, ecologically-based pest management, buffer strips, and even making a transition to organic farming. According to NSAC, it “covers more acres of working farm and ranch lands on a multiyear basis than any other federal conservation program.”
Both the Obama administration’s budget proposal and the House version of the spending bill would have limited the amount of new acreage that could be enrolled; the administration proposal would have capped new enrollment at 7 million acres, the House spending bill at 7.74 million acres.
NSAC credited Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., “as well as several strong bipartisan supporters in the House,” with success on the CSP.
On the flip side, however, Congress did not fund the Environmental Quality Incentives Program at the full level authorized by the farm bill. Instead of $1.65 billion, the bill includes about $1.33 billion.
“This will have a direct impact on producers seeking financial and technical assistance to conserve water, soil, and other natural resources on their farms,” NSAC said. The group noted that in the previous year, Congress stripped $253 million from the authorized amount. Those reductions mean “only 23 percent of eligible applicants were able to get into the program,” NSAC said.
Another good news-bad news narrative played out in the energy realm. The omnibus kept farm bill-authorized funding ($50 million) for the Rural Energy for America Program and tacked on an additional $500,000 in loan guarantees. However, the bill also cut funding for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) from $21.2 million in FY 2015 to $3 million for the current fiscal year.
One big-ticket item is USDA’s Conservation Operations budget, the main funding source for technical assistance services provided to farmers, ranchers and foresters. That budget was increased slightly from $846.4 million to $850.9 million. The administration request was $831.2 million.
The omnibus includes the farm bill-authorized level of $450 million for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which replaced the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, Wetlands Reserve Program and Grassland Reserve Program in 2014.
Ag research got a boost in the omnibus. USDA’s largest competitive grants research program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, grew from $325 million to $350 million, which was still $100 million less than sought by the administration.
The increase “provides the means to allow USDA to fund more public plant breeding and cultivar development research, more agro-ecological systems research, and more mid-size farm profitability and regional food economy research, but we will need to continue to push for those high priority research needs within the broad, discretionary program that can fund just about anything,” NSAC said.
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which offers competitive grants, received $24.7 million, the highest level since it began nearly 30 years ago. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service got $2.5 million, the same amount as in FY 2015, and $400,000 more than requested by the administration.
Another program that received a lot of attention as the omnibus neared the finish line was the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides money to federal land management agencies along with matching grants to states to buy and manage land. After a lot of haggling, Congress agreed to an FY 2016 funding level of $450 million, $202 million more than the House Appropriations Committee recommendation and $144 more than the Senate’s. The last time LWCF received that amount of money was FY 2010.
In a separate action in the so-called Tax Extenders bill, Congress raised the maximum deduction individuals can take for donating a conservation easement from 30 percent of their adjusted gross income (AGI) in any year to 50 percent. It also allows qualified farmers and ranchers to deduct up to 100 percent of their AGI and increases the number of years over which a donor can take deductions from six to 16 years.
“Farmers, ranchers and the public will directly benefit from the incentive that encourages landowners to place a conservation easement on their land to protect important natural, scenic and historic resources,” the Land Trust Alliance said
“This could be the most important conservation legislation in 20 years,” said LTA President Rand Wentworth. “It will result in the conservation of millions of acres of America’s most important natural areas, farms and ranches. This agreement demonstrates that we as a nation treasure our lands and must conserve their many benefits for all future generations.”
The Nature Conservancy also issued a release praising the LWCF funding and reauthorization.
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