WASHINGTON, June 29, 2016 - After taking a $4 billion hit in the most recent farm bill, conservation groups are hoping to make up ground in the next iteration of ag legislation as program demand increases.

The cut in funding could actually run as high as $6 billion depending on whom you’re asking. The Congressional Budget Office scored the savings in the 2014 farm bill’s conservation title at $3.97 billion, as did Ohio State University economist Carl Zulaf. But conservation groups and the Senate Agriculture committee say the savings were actually closer to $6 billion, a figure the Congressional Research Service says is high because sequestration cuts had already been factored into baseline spending.

But the $2 billion discrepancy in talking points doesn’t change the fact that conservation groups are undoubtedly hoping to get much of that money back in the next farm bill, expected to be taken up before 2018. Substantial cuts hit the Conservation Stewardship Program ($2.27 billion) and the Conservation Reserve Program ($3.32 billion) in the 2014 legislation, and participation in both programs was capped in an effort to achieve future savings.

Coleman Garrison, the director of government affairs for the National Association of Conservation Districts, says NACD is viewing the conservation title “holistically,” hoping to make gains for key programs without sacrificing funding for others.

“If we could get more acres for CRP, that would be great. One thing that we have to keep in mind, though, is that CRP doesn’t operate in a vacuum,” Garrison said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “If (CRP acreage) were to be increased… that’s additional funding that has to go out, and unless Congress were to somehow start finding more money out there that didn’t exist before, the chances of it being increased without anything else being decreased are probably pretty slim.”

Case in point: the 2014 farm bill. Among the net cut of $3.97 billion for the conservation title, with sizable cuts to CSP and CRP, funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program was increased by $497 million and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program was created by merging three programs to create a new $1.23 billion initiative.

What could work in favor of supporters is the generally favorable reputation of conservation programs – and specifically CRP, which doles out a yearly payment to producers in exchange for taking environmentally sensitive land out of production – on Capitol Hill.

“I think there’s a lot of support for the (CRP) program, especially among the farm state delegations,” Ariel Wiegard, the director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Center for Agriculture and Public Lands, told Agri-Pulse. “Folks are starting to get serious about what this lower cap will mean and are starting to speak up.”

Wiegard said Reps Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the House Agriculture Committee when the most recent farm bill was passed, have said that CRP “had been cut a little too far” in that legislation. Members of South Dakota’s congressional delegation were also in an uproar last month when only 101 acres from the state were accepted into the program, just 0.2 percent of the 42,000 acres that had applied.

According to figures from USDA’s Farm Service Agency, the most recent signup for CRP acres saw a nationwide offering of over 1.8 million acres from landowners wishing to join the program. The program accepted 410,773 of those acres (about 22 percent) nationwide, but Wiegard said the signup could have been even more competitive. She said she’s heard that some producers were aware of the high demand and knew that getting their acres in the program would be a tall order, “so they didn’t even try, which is frustrating.”

“It would have maybe even been more competitive if those ideas (talk of high demand) weren’t out there in advance,” she said, adding that she’s heard “anecdotally” that “it actually discouraged some people from applying.”

Both NACD and TRCP are in the process of gathering feedback and formulating what they want out of the next farm bill. Garrison said NACD is currently surveying its members and will likely set its formal policy positions at the group’s annual meeting taking place January 28 to February 2, 2017, and Wiegard said TRCP and its 49 partner organizations will ramp up their policy talks after the November elections.


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