Conservation needs farm bill compromise

This summer, the U.S. House and Senate passed their versions of the 2018 Farm Bill. With the Sept. 30 expiration of the 2014 Farm Bill, the pressure is on to pass a finished product by the end of this year for farmers, ranchers and consumers.

Everyone has a stake in the farm bill and the support it provides for not only a safe, affordable and nutritious food supply, but for the conservation benefits the bill provides for cleaner water and healthier soils. As conferees continue to meet and work out a compromise between their versions of the farm bill, Congress must ensure the locally-led conservation delivery system will continue to thrive in the final product.

As president of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) and a farmer and rancher in Eastern New Mexico, I’ve experienced firsthand the benefits and importance of the voluntary, incentive-based conservation model. Conservation districts were created in the 1930s during the pinnacle of the Dust Bowl to educate landowners and promote improved conservation practices at the local level. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to conservation, the locally-led delivery system enables conservation districts along with federal and state government partners to implement locally-based solutions.

Farm bill conservation programs are successful when local stakeholders have a say in what natural resource concerns need to be addressed. Resource concerns look different across this nation. While water quality may be important in the Chesapeake Bay, water quantity may be the focus out West. That’s why determining those unique resource concerns at the local level is so important. Unfortunately, this locally-led model could be undermined if certain issues are not addressed in the final farm bill conference report.

First and foremost, the success of any conservation program is directly tied to the funding for the conservation title, and our nation’s investment in sustainable agriculture must be prioritized in this farm bill. Conservation was significantly cut during the 2014 Farm Bill, so protecting funding levels from further cuts is critical for landowners to continue addressing the resource challenges the nation faces.

Funding alone does not guarantee a successful program. The mechanisms that allow programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) or the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to be successful are rooted in the locally- led process. Local Working Groups, led by conservation districts, help inform State Technical Committees about how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should implement farm bill conservation programs to ensure the resource needs of each state and region are met. Because these resource concerns vary from state to state and county to county, Congress should ensure these programs continue to be flexibly implemented.

Creating or increasing national requirements that specify certain program funds be set aside to address one specific concern places administrative burdens on USDA and limits locally-led decision making. This ultimately reduces the likelihood these programs will work as intended. While each concern being addressed through these “set-asides” is individually important, Congress should not be overly prescriptive in diverting program dollars and should, instead, increase USDA’s flexibility to locally implement these programs based upon the unique resource needs of each state.

However, set-asides and carved-out initiatives are not the only provisions that could jeopardize the locally-led delivery system. Granting conservation dollars to private entities to implement conservation programs, as proposed for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), takes away taxpayer dollars and gives it to organizations that may have conflicting interests and goals with local stakeholders, limiting the success of the underlying programs.

Over 80 years of successful conservation delivery at the local level shows how a strong conservation title enables agricultural producers and communities to best meet their needs. Unfortunately, some are publicly calling for Congress to take one chamber’s version over the other. In August, NACD provided a blueprint of what this compromise should look like to the conference committee. Each version has policies worthwhile of the final product, and a compromise should blend the best parts of each bill.

NACD calls on Congress to take advantage of the opportunity through the 2018 Farm Bill to build upon the successes of prior legislation. By limiting national requirements and prioritizing flexibility in program implementation, the locally led process will continue to be successful.

Brent Van Dyke is the current president for the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD). Van Dyke and his wife, Kim, reside in Hobbs, N.M., where they farm alfalfa and coastal Bermuda hay in Eastern New Mexico and cotton in West Texas. The National Association of Conservation Districts is the nonprofit organization that represents the nation’s 3,000 conservation districts, their state and territory associations, and the 17,000 men and women who serve on their governing boards.

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