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Senators Want Farm Bill Emphasis on Green Payments, not Land Retirement

President Trump called for elimination of the USDA’s green-payment program for working lands conservation in his budget. Now four members of the Senate Agriculture Committee are taking the opposite approach. They would keep the program, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), in operation and reform other USDA conservation programs to keep high-quality farmland in production.

Lawmakers will have to resolve the divergent ideas in writing the new farm bill, which includes a section on conservation. Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson wants to expand the land-idling Conservation Reserve to 30 million acres, while, by some accounts, House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway would abolish the CSP. The USDA spends more than $5 billion a year on programs that range from land retirement to cost-share programs for controlling farm runoff to payments for making soil, water, and wildlife conservation part of day-to-day farming.

“It will be a debate. Two different approaches will be out there,” said Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which has endorsed the so-called GROW (Give Our Resources the Opportunity to Work) bill unveiled Thursday by Republican Senators Joni Ernst and Charles Grassley of Iowa and Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.

Farm groups generally prefer programs like the CSP over the Conservation Reserve because it gives beginning farmers a better chance to rent or buy land. Sportsmen’s groups value the Conservation Reserve because idled farmland can be good wildlife habitat. Some farmers see a larger Conservation Reserve as a way to reduce grain production and prop up commodity prices.

The bill backed by the four senators would keep the current 24 million-acre cap on the Conservation Reserve and make productive farmland ineligible for enrollment in the program. It also would maintain CSP enrollment at 10 million acres a year and funding of $1.75 billion a year for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which shares the cost of practices, such as terraces, that reduce runoff. More than 70 million acres are enrolled in the CSP at present.

Ernst said the bill would satisfy two objectives: It would focus federal conservation spending on marginal lands that need assistance and it would keep productive land on the market.

Besides eliminating the CSP, Trump would lower the rental rate paid to landowners who put land in the Conservation Reserve. The program, created in 1985, idles fragile cropland, restricts enrollment to environmentally sensitive land, and denies conservation assistance to farmers with more than $500,000 in adjusted gross income.

Peterson says most of the cost of expanding the Conservation Reserve to 30 million acres would be offset by lowering payment rates to 80% of the local land rental rate.

More than a quarter of the land in the Conservation Reserve is productive cropland, said the National Grain and Feed Association. Restricting enrollment in the reserve to fragile land will mean that productive land is available to grow food, it said.

To read the GROW bill, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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