In late December 2018, President Trump signed the $867 billion Farm Bill into law. After a long fight to protect conservation programs and bolster local foods programs, it would seem the heavy lifting is over. But the Farm Bill failed to address core problems in the farm economy; it does not answer overproduction and associated low prices for farmers, and does not call out the growing threat of climate change to agriculture. As such, it’s especially important that programs supporting conservation and local foods are fully funded and implemented well.
The appropriations process determines where the money authorized in the Farm Bill goes. There are two types of program funding—mandatory and discretionary. If a program has mandatory funding, it will (most likely) be unaffected by the appropriations process. If a program has discretionary funding, however, it is subject to the appropriations process every year. During this process, Congressional appropriations committees choose how much and where to allocate funding. Programs with discretionary funding are important advocacy targets; sustainable agriculture programs need adequate funding to function well, and this is often determined through appropriations fights.
As climate change increasingly impacts agriculture, conservation programs become more and more crucial to boost soil health and improve farm resiliency. In particular, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) provides financial and technical assistance for farmers to create and implement whole-farm conservation plans. The Farm Bill protects against cuts to total conservation funding in the short term, but the bill slices future funding from CSP and will result in a decrease of $5.2 billion toward working lands conservation in the next Farm Bill. This makes it all the more important to advocate for no funding cuts to working lands conservation programs, especially CSP, in the appropriations process.
Aside from appropriations, it’s critical to ensure that Farm Bill programs are implemented well. For CSP, advocates must hold the Department of Agriculture accountable for outreach, which increases program accessibility and the number of farmers aware of and applying for the program. Within CSP, dollars can be allocated to several different conservation practices. IATP supports maximum CSP dollars going to “advanced conservation activities,” including cover crops and resource-conserving crop rotations. These are two of the most effective practices to increase soil health. High enough payment rates must be set to incentivize farmers to take on these activities.
Still, implementation will determine how well these programs work. USDA, the Agricultural Marketing Service, and the Rural Business Cooperative Service will all administer parts of LAMP. IATP will advocate for coordination to improve outreach and technical assistance, make application processes accessible and help producers understand new parts of the programs.
Another issue of importance to Rural America is the proposed relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) out of Washington, D.C. As IATP’s Dr. Steve Suppan wrote, “These are not obscure bureaucracies. Their data gathering, analysis and support for forward-thinking research makes possible crucial programs serving farmers and rural and urban communities, the real consumers of USDA programs.”
The relocation of ERS and NIFA from Washington, D.C., to other parts of the U.S. would hamper their ability to coordinate with other federal research agencies and would likely lead to staff attrition. In fact, ERS and NIFA staff knew nothing of the proposed relocation until just before the announcement, and many of these premier researchers would not choose to move their families and careers out of D.C. This decreased research capacity and staff attrition would be catastrophic for agricultural research. IATP hopes to see no funding appropriated for this relocation.
Many members of Congress are champions of sustainable agriculture and will help advocate for these implementation and appropriations asks. At the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition winter meeting in January, which IATP attended, members of Congress who championed sustainable agriculture programs in the 2018 Farm Bill received awards. We will work with these Congresspeople, and other agriculture champions in the House and Senate, to protect critical agriculture and rural development programs in the implementation and appropriations phases.