When President Trump sent his Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal to Congress on May 23, 2017, folks on Capitol Hill pretty much declared it dead on arrival. I suspect they are right. It would make very significant changes in direction on many programs and policies within a short timeframe. Unlikely to happen. Agriculture Secretary Perdue has defended the agriculture portion of the proposal, but also deferred to Congress to appropriate as it sees fit.

At the same time, I think it’s a mistake to simply dismiss President Trump’s proposal as something that’s not happening and is therefore irrelevant. In fact, I think it’s very relevant, perhaps not to the FY 2018 appropriations, but as a precursor to the 2018 Farm Bill debate. Why? Because if you read it carefully, you can find indicators of the Administration’s priorities for conservation agriculture. Priorities that are likely to play out in the next farm bill.

Let’s unpack some of the changes and see what signals the Trump Administration is sending that may pinpoint its priorities. What first catches the eye are the significant cuts in spending that the budget proposal envisions for agriculture—21 percent. If you want a government that is smaller and leaner and focused heavily on defense, cuts to other programs are part of the package. It’s simple. If you want smaller government, you have to shrink the size or number of programs, rules and regulations.

In contrast, I would point out that the cuts to conservation represent only about a 10-percent reduction. While I don’t think this means conservation is a high priority, I do think it’s an interesting if unintentional signal. And we know that the Administration has been influenced by some conservative groups, such as the Heritage Foundation, that have been opposed to farm supports and questioned many subsidies. So, does the smaller reduction in funding indicate that conservation is considered a more appropriate area for federal involvement? I’m tempted to draw that conclusion, but am waiting for clearer signals from the Administration.  

Meanwhile, some wildlife and conservation groups are lobbying for increased Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage—even as much as a 40 million-acre cap, up from the current 24 million acres (which would cost up to $8 billion). On the other side are such unlikely allies as the American Farm Bureau and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition arguing to keep the current cap and invest in other conservation priorities, which is what the 2018 budget proposal would do. We should expect a lot more debate on this topic.

The Trump Administration’s 2018 proposal sent a significant farm bill message by recommending a $3 billion increase over the next 10 years in the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which protects both farmlands and wetlands. Could it be that the Administration favors permanent easements rather than short-term CRP rentals? This surprised many of us in the conservation community and bears further scrutiny. Congress and the conservation interest groups will need to engage with the Administration to determine the land use philosophy behind these priorities as part of addressing the next farm bill.

One program of note on the chopping block is RCPP—the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which has been popular with nonprofit groups. It was designed to leverage private funding, streamline and improve the partnership process. It’s ironic that an Administration that has promised to reduce regulation and reduced federal spending, is proposing to eliminate the conservation program intended to streamline program rules and facilitate private funding of conservation efforts. Eliminating RCPP is estimated to save $755 million over 10 years. Should it be retained?

Another reduction of significance is the proposal to eliminate enrollment of new acres in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), for an estimated savings of $7.9 billion over 10 years. CSP, championed by now-retired Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, was created in the 2002 Farm Bill and has become the largest agricultural conservation program. But support for it in Congress is mixed.

This sets the stage for an interesting policy trade. The Administration signaled a funding increase totaling $250 million per year for EQIP and $450 million per year for ACEP in exchange for eliminating CSP and RCPP. The increase is estimated to cost $1.9 billion for EQIP and $3 billion for ACEP over the next 10 years. Is that a fair trade?

Already interest groups are rallying against proposed cuts to food stamps and reductions in the agricultural research and rural development programs. For CSP, the silence has been deafening. Are farmers, ranchers and conservationists willing to let it die without a fight?  Or can a larger, more flexible EQIP deliver the same conservation results?  Is the President’s 2018 budget proposal a goner? Probably. But read the signals, and you’ll get a clue to the Administration’s priorities. If you see things differently, now is the time to speak up as Congress looks toward the next farm bill.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service.