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Congress Eyes Conservation Trims

Congress passes a farm bill roughly every five years, but every year its appropriators have a chance to tinker with its spending levels. That's exactly what the House and Senate did this week, when they considered spending for agriculture in the 2015 fiscal year that starts next October. Differences between the House and the Senate and Obama Administration over school lunch programs grabbed the headlines. But farmers are likely to be more affected by cuts to conservation spending announced by the House Appropriations Committee earlier this week and approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition was disappointed by both committees, but more critical of cuts proposed by the House committee.

The House bill "slashes funding levels for farm bill conservation and renewable energy programs," the group said. "It cuts more than 1 million acres from the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), over $200 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and $60 million from the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program."

The Senate was less draconian, leaving CSP mandatory spending untouched but it still trimmed spending for EQIP, a widely-used program whose approved practices include bioreactors, which can filter nitrates from drainage tile before the reach streams. The Senate proposes to cut EQIP spending more than House does.

"We are disappointed that both the House and Senate bill once again cut mandatory conservation dollars from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program – the House by $209 million and the Senate by $250 million," NSAC said on the group's blog. "Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committee fiercely debated appropriate funding levels for all mandatory conservation programs during debate of the 2014 Farm Bill, and NSAC continues to urge appropriators to respect the jurisdiction of the authorizing committees by leaving mandatory funding intact."

The importance of conservation programs became more apparent this week, as large food companies and retailers ramp up efforts to provide foods that are grown sustainably.

Just this week, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) announced a collaboration with Smithfield Foods and its livestock production subsidiary, Murphy-Brown LLC, to help farmers optimize fertilizer application to grain grown for animal feed. The goal is to reduce water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, while maintaining crop yields and lowering farm input costs.

EDF and Smithfield said that the new program will help farmers who sell grain to Murphy-Brown learn to use new tools and practices that more precisely match fertilizer application with their crops' needs and improve soil health. The company, which raises hogs, says the goal is to have 75 percent of its Southeast grain-sourcing acres participate in a fertilizer optimization and soil health program by 2018. The program will roll out in North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina this year. It will expand to grain Smithfield buys from Midwest farmers in 2015.

Senator Tom Harkin, a former Senate Agriculture Committee chairman who championed increased conservation spending in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills and the key supporter of CSP, was especially disappointed by the cuts proposed by the House.

"They're awful. Hopefully they're not going to succeed in this, at a time when we're asking farmers to plant more and grow more," Harking told this week. "We don't need less conservation. We need more conservation."

That battle over conservation spending isn't over. The House and Senate bills will have to be reconciled before coming to a final vote. And Harkin thinks it's likely that it will be part of a larger spending bill that may not be passed until the lame duck session of Congress after elections this fall.

Meanwhile, "I'm hopeful we'll hear from conservation and farmers," Harkin said.

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