NACD Farm Bill Update

Over the past year and a half, NACD and our members have worked to support locally led conservation in the upcoming farm bill by developing legislative requests, testifying before Congress, working with committee leaders, and recently meeting with hundreds of lawmakers to advocate for NACD’s priorities during our D.C. Fly-In. With recent developments and more action expected in the coming months, it is a pivotal time for agriculture and conservation policy.

Congress is making progress in moving a farm bill forward, but there are several additional steps required before legislation can be enacted. On May 1, the chairs of the House and Senate agriculture committees released individual farm bill frameworks, which outline proposals these leaders expect or hope to include in their versions of the bill. NACD commended that both frameworks supported NACD’s top priority by calling for the incorporation of the remaining Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) conservation investments into the conservation title of the bill. NACD continues to be a leading proponent for the integration of this funding into the conservation title, which would permanently increase support for USDA conservation programs and help more land stewards implement conservation practices on their operations for decades to come. The released frameworks also support many additional NACD farm bill requests. The Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to publish his own farm bill framework in the coming weeks.

On May 17, House Agriculture Committee Chairman GT Thompson released full farm bill text, and the committee held a markup to consider the legislation on May 23. Following release of the text, NACD sent a letter thanking the full committee for their work to develop the bill, commending the inclusion of NACD priorities, and encouraging bipartisan collaboration to pass a final bill as soon as possible. After a long markup, the House Agriculture Committee passed the bill by a vote of 33-21, with four Democrats joining the Republican majority in support. NACD released this statement in response to the committee advancing the bill. To be passed into law, a final farm bill must be approved by the full House of Representatives, pass the Senate, and be signed by the President. The full House of Representatives has not yet scheduled time to consider the bill.

The bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee includes many of NACD’s specific farm bill requests. Importantly, it supports NACD’s top farm bill priority by integrating all remaining IRA conservation investments – approximately $14 billion – into conservation programs. In doing this, the bill removes the existing requirement that IRA conservation funding supports only climate-smart agriculture and forestry mitigation activities. Although lawmakers support integrating the IRA conservation funding on a bipartisan basis, they are largely divided along party lines on removing that requirement. The bill also shifts the current allocations of IRA investments within NRCS conservation programs, and a portion of the funding is used to support additional programs, including the Feral Swine Eradication and Control Program, the Small Watershed Program (PL-566), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a newly authorized Forest Conservation Easement Program, and a new State Soil Health Grant Program. Overall, the bill would substantially increase funding for USDA conservation programs over the long term and, in doing so, greatly support the important work districts do across the country.

The House bill directly supports many additional NACD requests across USDA conservation programs. Within the CRP, it would increase the maximum payment limit from $50,000 to $125,000, change rental rates by paying more for the most marginal land, and authorize Signup Incentive Payments, Practice Incentive Payments, and mid-contract management. The bill also combines the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement Initiative into a new State Partnership Initiative to facilitate more local involvement in program administration. CRP provisions would also retain the current acreage cap and clarify several program activities, including emergency grazing. Overall, these improvements would facilitate a more locally led approach, provide resources to allow land stewards to better utilize the program, and allow for the implementation of effective practices on enrolled lands.

The bill makes only minor changes to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Within EQIP, it would provide payments for precision agriculture technologies and practices, and allow states to consider higher payment rates for practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It would also further incentivize the development and evaluation of innovative technologies through Conservation Innovation Grants. Within CSP, the bill codifies increasing the minimum CSP payment and supports the planning, adoption, and acquisition of precision agriculture technologies and practices.

One of NACD’s top requests within the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is to simplify and streamline the administrative process to approve and implement projects more quickly. While NRCS is already taking significant steps to address this request, the House bill builds on these efforts by setting deadlines to decrease the length of time between project award and the finalization of partnership agreements. It also provides flexibility in both administrative expenses and partner-led technical assistance and ensures that program partners are reimbursed for technical assistance in a timely manner. The bill allows advancement of technical assistance funds and requires USDA to take steps to eliminate administrative complexity with technical assistance. NACD appreciates the bill’s focus on approving effective projects quickly and providing administrative flexibility to partners working to put conservation on the ground.

USDA’s Small Watershed Program (PL-566) provides resources and tools for local sponsors to implement watershed protection and improvement projects across the country. Conservation districts are among the top sponsors of these projects, which support dams and other critical watershed infrastructure and practices to bolster flood prevention, water quality, and water quantity. The House bill supports many of NACD’s specific requests within PL-566, including tripling overall funding for the program, increasing the federal cost-share for dam rehabilitation while also expediting timelines and allowing for more local input and flexibility in program administration.

The House bill includes a host of additional provisions directly supporting NACD priorities. It bolsters existing USDA efforts to streamline and improve the Technical Service Provider (TSP) program, authorizes a process to evaluate conservation payment rates, facilitates the testing and consideration of new conservation practices standards, reauthorizes and increases funding for the Feral Swine Eradication and Control Program, provides direct hire authority for NRCS, supports critical forestry management initiatives, and removes adjusted gross income limitations under certain conditions. NACD believes that these changes will allow USDA and our entire conservation delivery system to better implement effective conservation in every part of the country.

So, what’s next for the farm bill? Will the House and Senate be able to negotiate and pass a final bill this year? The path forward and timeline are uncertain. While the House Agriculture Committee passed a bill with some bipartisan support, Republicans and Democrats are largely divided on provisions in the bill to restrict future updates to USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan and suspend some of the Commodity Credit Corporation’s spending authority. The next step in the House of Representatives is for the full chamber to consider the committee-passed bill. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Thompson has said this would not occur until September at the earliest. On the Senate side, committee leaders must still introduce and consider a full bill. The upcoming federal elections in November may also further complicate and delay Congress moving a farm bill forward.

NACD believes that the single most important action Congress can take to support our country’s conservation delivery system is passing a final farm bill that incorporates all remaining IRA conservation funding into the conservation title as soon as possible. As time passes, NRCS will continue to effectively administer IRA conservation investments, which leaves less of that funding to build permanent baseline funding for USDA conservation programs in the farm bill. We believe Congress can still accomplish this important goal by working on a bipartisan basis to resolve differences and pass a final bill in the coming months. With so much bipartisan agreement on great policies within the conservation title, Congress has a huge opportunity to bolster our country’s conservation efforts for decades to come, but it is crucial for the process to continue to move forward and for a farm bill to be signed into law this year.

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