House Subcommittee Evaluates USDA Farm Bill Conservation Programs

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By Coleman Garrison

On Wednesday, May 15, 2019, the House Agriculture Committee’s Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee held its first hearing of the new Congress, welcoming Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Matt Lohr and Farm Service Agency (FSA) Administrator Richard Fordyce to review the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) farm bill conservation programs.

Each witness took advantage of their opening statements to announce the opening of program signups in their respective agencies. Chief Lohr announced that beginning May 15, applications would be accepted for Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) for On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials. These grants support more widespread adoption of innovative approaches and practices to protect natural resources on working lands, and the application period will run through July 15, 2019.

Administrator Fordyce announced that beginning June 3, 2019, FSA will begin accepting applications for certain practices under the continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), along with offering one-year extensions for existing CRP contracts that are scheduled to expire. FSA hopes to have a general sign up of CRP to take place in December 2019 once the agency is able to write new rules and regulations as required in the 2018 Farm Bill.

During the hearing, several Members of Congress asked important questions about the implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill. Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) started off the hearing expressing concern to Administrator Fordyce that the agency was opening up continuous CRP acreage but not general CRP acreage. Peterson asked the administrator how the agency felt it had the authority to do one, but couldn’t move forward on the other without first waiting for a published rule.

Fordyce stated that after conducting a “thorough analysis, FSA determined that CRP continuous and (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) CREP signups may be open under limited circumstances, prior to publications of the regulation,” but the agency must wait on general signup due to the 2018 Farm Bill’s inclusion of a number of changes that only affect the general program. Chairman Peterson finished his time by expressing concern that due to a limited number of overall acres in the CRP program, staggering signup dates allow more acres to be “sucked up” into continuous acres, leaving less acres available for the general CRP signup later this year.

Following Chairman Peterson’s time, Subcommittee Chairwoman Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) asked Chief Lohr to provide an update on each agency’s efforts to implement the 2018 Farm Bill. The chief responded by telling the subcommittee that NRCS’s goal is to have each program’s final rule in place by the beginning of Fiscal Year 2020, and that the agency is proud that, despite not having new rules in place for the programs under NRCS’s purview, there has been no gap in service for farmers, ranchers and forest-land owners.

Over the next hour, members of the subcommittee asked the witnesses about conservation programs’ ability to address wildfires, how focusing on soil health can help capture carbon and the potential benefits carbon markets could have for producers, and the 2018 Farm Bill’s focus on source water protections in support of water quality goals.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) wrapped up the hearing by asking Chief Lohr how his constituents can best provide local input to shape conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to meet the unique needs of the various regions across the country. Chief Lohr responded by telling the ranking member “The beauty of NRCS is we are locally-led. That’s been our motto and our theme for almost 85 years because all conservation begins at the local level…I would certainly encourage producers who have an interest to get involved with their Local Work(ing) Group […] that shapes policy that gets pushed up to the State Technical Committee. As you mentioned perfectly, agriculture is so different, not only state to state but locality to locality, so this is an opportunity for farmers to get involved with that local level and share what’s needed.”

A recording of the hearing can be found on the committee’s YouTube channel.

Coleman Garrison is NACD’s Director of Government Affairs and can be reached at coleman-garrison[at]nacdnet.org.

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Tags: 2018 Farm Bill

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