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Conservation Must Be A Priority in the 2018 Farm Bill

The newly released House version of the 2018 farm bill, H.R. 2, sputtered into the legislative process last Wednesday due to proposed changes to the S.N.A.P. program. These changes abruptly ended the traditional spirit of bipartisanship during the first committee hearing. Although these changes have gotten the headlines, states battling harmful algal blooms like Ohio need to keep an eye on the conservation section as well. These programs allow agricultural producers to implement best management practices through financial incentives and technical assistance. In recent history, much of the funding that has come into Ohio to curb nutrient pollution has come from federal conservation programs established in the farm bill. The final version of this years farm bill will have a major impact on Ohio’s ability to meet its 40% phosphorus reduction goal by 2025.

Even with support from federal programs, the majority of Ohio agricultural producers that want help preventing nutrient runoff can’t get it due to the lack of resources and technical assistance. This is why we need further resources to fight harmful algal blooms in the conservation section. The House version of the 2018 farm bill goes in a different direction by lowering conservation funding overall by nearly $800 million over the coming decade. Additional areas of concern are changes made to key programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and some problematic “riders” that weaken environmental laws.

Although programs like CSP need to be modernized and simplified, the unique benefits they provide must be protected. As the bill is currently written, working lands conservation programs would be cut by nearly $5 billion over 10 years. The CSP program would be eliminated and folded into the larger Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the 70 million acres CSP protects nationwide would be reduced. Key provisions of CSP such as whole farm conservation would be lost as well. Stable funding for a wide variety of conservation options allows for agricultural producers to enroll in a program that best fits their land and their region.

Some of the problematic “riders” included in the bill have been considered poison pills to overarching goals and need to be removed before being finalized. These harmful provisions undermine Clean Water Act safeguards in regards to the spraying of pesticides into water bodies. They allow for federal wildlife agencies to use pesticides without consulting the EPA on the effects they may have on endangered species. Lastly, there are nearly a dozen exclusions for forestry in the farm bill that bypasses oversight established in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Allowing provisions like these to pass while trying to protect our environment through the conservation programs is counter productive and must be prevented.

Although much can change as this legislative process unfolds in the coming months, Congress must prioritize conservation in the 2018 farm bill. States like Ohio are counting on support to both aide our agricultural community and to bolster our conservation efforts. Barring a continual resolution, the 2014 farm bill expires at the end of September which gives both chambers the summer to reestablish bipartisan talks and fix some of these problems. The House of Representatives will likely finalize their version by mid-May with the Senate unveiling their version in early to mid-May. It is unclear how easily the House and the Senate will be able to settle on a final plan during a conference committee. What is clear is that if we do not strengthen the funding in the conservation section, states like Ohio will have trouble reducing nutrient pollution and algal blooms for the foreseeable future.