What the 2014 Farm Bill Means for Conservation
By Tim Jacobson
~The Nonprofit Provocateur~
On Tuesday, Feb. 4, the U.S. Senate approved the 2014 Farm Bill on a 68-32 vote, clearing the way for Pres. Obama to sign the legislation, which is expected on Friday for this bipartisan legislation.
Although conservation funding is tiny compared to the food stamp portion of the Farm Bill, the legislation still plays a major role in many wildlife and soil conservation programs.
The bill provides $57.6 billion in conservation programs over the next 10 years. That sounds great, but unfortunately it’s about a $6 billion reduction from the 2008 legislation—the last time a bill was passed.
Funding Agricultural Conservation Easements
The Land Trust Alliance, a national organization, had pursued a priority of securing adequate funding for conservation easements to protect working farms, ranches and forests. The Agricultural Lands Easement program (ALE) in the new Farm Bill, which covers both rangelands and croplands, will fund more than $1 billion for conservation over the next ten years – with most of that funding coming in the next five years, according to the Alliance. ALE combines the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) and Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), and is part of the larger Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which also contains the former Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP).
A previous shortcoming of FRPP was the requirement for land trusts and local governments to provide a match of cash for FRPP projects. In contrast, GRP easements, when held by the government, did not require match. With ALE covering both functions, and with land trusts and local governments taking on the long-term stewardship of those easements, the conservation community succeeded in gaining a provision enabling the Secretary of Agriculture to waive the requirement that “eligible entities” (land trusts) provide 25% of the funds for the purchase of an easement. The provision instead allows landowners to donate the remaining amount, using the value of the donated development rights as a substitute for the cash. The conference committee adopted an amendment during negotiations stipulating that use of the waiver is limited to lands in “active agricultural production.”
This acceptance of match alternatives will help ensure that where there is a lack of state and local conservation funding programs there is still an opportunity for nonprofit land trusts to protect strategically important properties.
Other Conservation Provisions
The latest Farm Bill includes a re-linking of conservation compliance with the federal crop insurance program, implementing a ‘Sodsaver’ provision within a handful of prairie states aimed at conserving intact grasslands, continuing the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and expanding incentives for sportsmen’s access on private lands.
It’s disappointing that the Sodsaver program doesn’t apply nationwide and to have CRP take another major hit. The 2014 Farm Bill reduces the acreage allowed in CRP from 32 million acres in 2014 to 24 million acres in 2017. The amount of land enrolled in CRP already had reached a 25-year low.
The CRP program provides enormous environmental benefits, including retaining high-quality soil on farms and limiting runoff of phosphorus and nitrogen, both of which keep our rivers clearer and cleaner and protect drinking water quality. CRP also provides excellent habitat for both game and non-game species of wildlife, which is why a half-dozen national hook-and-bullet organizations serve as nonprofit partners to the Farm Service Agency with the program.
Assessment of the 2014 Farm Bill
The National Wildlife Federation issued a statement concluding, “The final 2014 farm bill isn’t perfect, but overall, it is a very strong bill.”
“The commitment and strong advocacy by key House and Senate leaders should be applauded by sportsmen around the country,” said Steve Kline, director of government relations for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Overall, the 2014 Farm Bill, a nearly $100 billion-a-year measure, is a messy set of compromises that has drawn plenty of criticism.
For example, last week U.S. Rep. Ron Kind said that what he’s seen of the compromise five-year Farm Bill is so bad that he voted against it. Kind, a La Crosse, Wis. Democrat, said during a conference call from Washington, D.C., that the bill fails to address the problem of out-of-control subsidies that benefit wealthy landowners “who aren’t even farmers.”
On the other side of the aisle, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. said, “It's mind-boggling, the sum of money that's spent on farm subsidies, duplicative nutrition and development assistance programs, and special interest pet projects. How are we supposed to restore the confidence of the American people with this monstrosity?” McCain pointed to grants and subsidies for sheep marketing, sushi rice, and the maple syrup industry.
Despite these concerns, I’m glad to see that conservation of our precious earth—a renewable resource that we must take good care of for ourselves and for future generations—remains a bipartisan priority.
For more information about the conservation aspects of the 2014 Farm Bill, visit
The Benefits of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
The hard statistics on the benefits of CRP are staggeringly positive. For example, the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute estimated 278 million pounds less nitrogen and 59 million pounds less phosphorus left fields in 2007 due to CRP, 95 and 86 percent reductions, respectively. FAPRI also estimated 203 million pounds of nitrogen and 49 million pounds of phosphorus were intercepted by CRP buffers in 2007. Since 1986, CRP has reduced more than 8 billion tons of soil erosion–the equivalent of approximately 267 million large dump truck loads of dirt!
Ducks Unlimited credits CRP as responsible for 25.7 million additional ducks produced in the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region alone during 1992-2003.
Non-game bird species also thrive in habitat protected by CRP. In a Washington Post editorial this past August, John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy, provide the example of the rare Henslow’s sparrow which, in recent spring counts in Illinois, are more than 25 times greater than they were in 1985--the year CRP was instituted.
The global climate benefits from CRP, too. In 2007, grass cover planted under CRP helped stop more than 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the environment. Carbon sequestration helps offset the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Not surprisingly, many of these glowing statistics come from 2007, the year that CRP acreage enrollment peaked, right before the huge trend of plowing up CRP acres, thus exposing the soil, and layering on fertilizers and pesticides for row crops.
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Tim Jacobson is president of Visjonær Consulting & Communications. He's been a board member and executive of a number of nonprofit and for-profit organizations over the past two decades. He's the executive producer of a conservation-themed documentary film, Mysteries of the Driftless, broadcast on PBS, author of the book Explosive Marketing for Nonprofits: Trajectory for Success, to be released in 2014, and author of Amazon best-selling thriller The Kurchatov Penetration. He has been featured dozens-upon-dozens of times by TV and radio stations, magazines and newspapers for his conservation work, consulting, filmmaking, writing, and legal work and for his exploration of international justice and peace issues.
This article is copyright (c) 2014, Timothy S. Jacobson. All rights reserved.