As the negotiations for the 2014 Farm Bill came to a close, we heard plenty about crop subsidies and food stamps, but the bill that passed in the House last Wednesday and in the Senate today also included funding for renewable energy and conservation programs. Granted, this is only about 7% of the budget, but it still has significant implications for our landscape.
The Farm Bill allocates $879 million for renewable energy programs, including $435 million for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). It’s pocket change in comparison to the total budget of almost $1 trillion over ten years, but we are glad to note that REAP has been permanently funded.
Conservation and Crop Insurance
The Farm Bill also includes $56 billion in conservation funding. Many conservationists are pleased that the Farm Bill included a provision that ties crop insurance subsidies to conservation practices on highly erodible lands and wetlands. Furthermore, the “sodsaver” provision will decrease crop subsidies for a few years on areas newly converted to croplands, hopefully discouraging the conversion of native grasslands to farmlands. Minnesota is one of the five states included in the sodsaver provision.
The consolidation of the current 23 conservation programs into just 13 is met with some ambivalence. Optimists point out that the restructuring could result in a more organized and streamlined process for landowners wishing to implement conservation practices. Many groups are heralding the consolidation of the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Grassland Reserve Program, and Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program into the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which has additionally been provided with permanent funding. However, if this change results in fewer conservation dollars—and the bill will cut about $6 billion dollars for conservation over ten years—it could prove problematic.
Declining Conservation Acreage
Finally, even as some conservation programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), have been continued, the caps on total enrolled acreage have been lowered. Previously, 32 million acres could be enrolled in CRP nationwide, but the new limit is 24 million acres. Enrollment in CSP will be limited to 10 million new acres per year, down from 12.8 million acres. The loss of CRP land, something we’ve already been seeing in the corn belt of Minnesota, will hit the CURE community particularly hard.
Yet, even as we hear the bad news, we can take comfort in the fact that just as this year’s Farm Bill was not a big win for conservationists and members of the sustainable farming community, it was also not a big win for Big Ag. Our movement is gaining strength and momentum, and as long as we continue to channel that strength and wisdom, we can expect future victories.
Blog post by Ariel Herrod, CURE Watershed Sustainability Program Coordinator.