Will the Farm Bill deliver for the climate?

HAFA Farm

Photo by Chris Palmquist

The clock is ticking—for our farmers and for the planet. From wildfires to drought, climate-related extreme weather events are taking a toll on farmers and increasing in frequency and cost. When compounded with a five-year-long economic storm of low agricultural prices, escalating debt and, now, President Trump’s brawls with trading partners, farmers need solutions. As a Congressional Conference Committee races to meet a September 30 deadline to pass a new Farm Bill, important programs that could support farmers’ ability to withstand climate-related changes and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions hang in the balance.

Last year, a relentless series of destructive weather events staggered farmers. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit parts of the South, droughts and wildfires spread across the Midwest, and intense heatwaves hit the West. This year, Kansas, Missouri and Oregon farmers and ranchers are dealing with severe drought conditions affecting both crops and pasture for livestock. More than 3 million acres out west have been scorched by larger than typical wildfires.

Farmers can expect these climate challenges to escalate. An October 2016 USDA report identified major risks to agriculture based on future climate trends: Extreme precipitation and storm damage to crops, soils and infrastructure; warmer temperatures increasing soil moisture stress and drought; additional competition from weeds, invasive plant species and damaging insects; and increased risk of plant and animal pathogens.

Despite these risks, Congress has consistently placed its head firmly in the sand when it comes to addressing climate change in the Farm Bill. For example, conservation programs that could help respond to climate change were cut by about $6 billion in the 2014 Farm Bill and Congress seems to be on the path to repeating past mistakes; both the House and Senate bills would cut working lands conservation programs despite their enormous popularity among farmers. Other important climate-linked programs that support renewable energy, seed research and food system infrastructure could also be on the chopping block. The House Farm Bill not only slashes many programs important for the climate, but also weakens them structurally. The Senate Farm Bill retains these programs, and in some cases provides important improvements. The Farm Bill Conference Committee made up of members from both the House and Senate will decide whether those cuts stand. (See the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) for an in-depth analysis of the House and Senate Farm Bills).

Below are a set of programs within the sprawling Farm Bill that could assist farmers with climate resilience, and where they stand in the Farm Bill debate:

Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
CSP is the nation’s largest conservation program, providing support for farmers to implement or build upon conservation practices. CSP’s whole farm approach supports climate-resilient strategies that support soil health, water quality, perennial grasses, sustainable livestock management and cover cropping. Currently, CSP covers 70 million acres across the country. The House Farm Bill proposes to eliminate CSP completely. An NSAC study found that under the House Bill, 18 states would lose billions in critical conservation dollars. A Union of Concerned Scientists analysis found that the loss of CSP would cost $4.7 billion per year in lost benefits, including those from reduced fertilizer use, less contaminated waters and fewer GHGs. The Senate version retains CSP, including increased payments for cover crops, additional crop rotations and managed rotational grazing. The Conference Committee should reject cuts to CSP and retain improvements in the Senate version.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
EQIP supports targeted environmental improvements, as opposed to CSP’s whole farm approach, that benefit working farmland. EQIP assists on-farm conservation projects that could build climate resilience including hard costs (i.e. for planning, design, equipment, fencing) for about 200 practices, such as cover cropping, prescribed grazing and high tunnels. The 2002 Farm Bill, opened up EQIP dollars to subsidize manure management at large-scale confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and limited public information about the size of EQIP contracts and what practices they support. These mega CAFOs with their giant manure lagoons have been associated with air and water pollution in rural communities around the country – from North Carolina, to Iowa, to California. They are also a significant source of GHG emissions. The result is more EQIP contracts are going to support large-scale CAFOs, making fewer resources are available to small and mid-sized independent family farmers. Both the House and Senate Farm Bills fail to address needed reforms to EQIP, including lowering the cap on contract size and increasing transparency about how funds are spent.

Guaranteed loans
Credit needs are high in farm country and USDA guaranteed loans help support family farmers when private lender financing is unavailable. CAFOs have been gobbling up limited guaranteed loan financing. Both the House and Senate versions increase the guaranteed loan limit from $1.39 million to $1.75 million—allowing fewer, larger loans to be made. Increasing the loan limit helps facilitate financing for large-scale CAFOs that burden contract growers with unsustainable amounts of debt. Instead of increasing the amount that can be borrowed, high-GHG emitting CAFOs should be prohibited from receiving these loans, making more credit available to smaller- and mid-sized family farms.

Crop insurance
Government subsidized crop insurance is critical for farmers in today’s age of increased extreme weather events, but it must do more than just enrich the insurance industry. The crop insurance program discourages some climate-resilient farming practices like cover cropping (by requiring early termination of the crop) and struggles to provide strong coverage for diverse cropping systems as opposed to single-crop systems. The Senate Bill’s crop insurance provisions more directly tie conservation practices to crop insurance and improve access to diversified farms. The Conference Committee should approve the Senate version.

Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP)
REAP provides grants and loans to farmers and businesses for energy efficiency improvements and the purchase of wind, solar or other renewable energy systems. It also provides grants to help farmers with energy audits and renewable energy development. The House Farm Bill eliminates all mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America Program, crippling the program. The Senate Bill maintains REAP at current levels.

Sustainable markets development
IATP reported earlier this year on the need to help farmers transition toward more sustainable markets (like organic, grass-fed or local) that are climate resilient and emit fewer greenhouse gases. The House bill effectively eliminates key programs that support growth in these markets—including the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP), Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) and the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP). The much stronger Senate bill creates the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), combining and strengthening the functions of VAPG and FMLFPP to form a consolidated program with permanent mandatory funding. The Conference Committee should support the Senate’s LAMP.

Research
The 
Senate bill significantly increases funding for agricultural research, education and extension, including for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI). The Senate bill also focuses on increased investments in plant breeding research, specifically in the development of local and regionally adapted varieties that will be critical for climate adaptation. The weaker House bill also would increase funding, just not at the Senate level. The Conference Committee should support the Senate bill.

Climate change is already posing a host of challenges for farmers on top of rising economic pressures. Congress shouldn’t just copy and paste this Farm Bill, it needs to recognize the growing risks climate change is causing for agriculture and our food system. The Farm Bill offers an important opportunity to move toward greater climate resilience—it’s a path the Conference Committee should support.