How the Farm Bill can supercharge conservation on private and public lands

Jul 18, 2023

By Sterling Homard

The Farm Bill is up for renewal this year, and every single American has a stake in the outcome. The legislation is reauthorized about every five years and its provisions span a variety of funding categories, from supplemental nutrition benefits and income assistance for farmers, to energy and conservation. Taken together, the Farm Bill provides an opportunity for policymakers to comprehensively address agricultural and food issues while providing incentives for voluntary private land conservation.

The Farm Bill is unique because it bridges the gap between public and private land by allowing public resources to incentivize conservation efforts on private property. This is possible largely through the Conservation Title, the second of twelve funding categories included in the bill. The Conservation Title authorizes voluntary programs that help farmers and ranchers implement natural resource and habitat conservation efforts on private land.

“Title II of the Farm Bill is the world’s largest investment in private lands conservation, and it shows in the history of farmland conservation success stories,” said Michigan Soybean Association representative Jacob Isley in testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry in April. “But we can do more.”

Mark Magura, the owner of Leap Frog LLC in Starke County, Indiana, turned 200.6 acres of Leap Frog into a permanent easement by enrolling it in the NRCS’s Wetland Reserve Easement Program. U.S. Department of Agruiculture | Flickr

In total, there are almost a dozen programs included in the Farm Bill that seek to help private landowners to conserve vital landscapes. These include the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, the Conservation Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Conservation Stewardship Program.

“The demand for these programs so far exceeds the dollars available,” Lori Faeth, senior director of government relations at the Land Trust Alliance, told the Center for Western Priorities in a recent episode of The Landscape Podcast. “So we are seeking a significant increase in funding for ACEP, which is what we call the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.”

The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) helps landowners ensure that there is a way to conserve their farms and ranches. The program provides funding from the federal government, which is matched with funding from state, local, or private sources, to pay landowners to relinquish development rights on their property, thereby ensuring that those lands will remain working lands. Farmers have used these funds to reinvest in their agricultural operations, pay off debt, and ensure that the lands remain viable, in some cases ensuring they can pass their land to future generations.

Angus hybrid cattle gather around Jim McClain — owner of The Flying Leatherneck Ranch. McClain has an easement agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Some of his property enters the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) while retaining a lifetime of grazing rights and ensuring a legacy of working agricultural land use. U.S. Department of Agriculture | Flickr

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pays farmers to take their least productive land out of production — although it can still be used for grazing or hay. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides agricultural producers and private forestland owners with financial and technical assistance so that they may address natural resource concerns, including improved water and air quality, conserved ground and surface water, increased soil health, and mitigation against wildfire risk. And the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) offers assistance to producers to maintain and improve existing conservation systems, including cover crops, which are planted to cover and protect the soil rather than for harvest; rotational grazing; ecologically-based pest management; buffer strips, or areas of permanent vegetation between a farm and a waterway to protect water quality; and facilitating the transition to organic farming.

Effects on public and private lands

50 percent of the United States is agricultural land owned and operated by farmers. With such a large footprint on the landscape, it’s imperative that private lands are being properly managed to ensure long-term productivity and health.

One of the ways the Farm Bill helps public land is through its incentives for water conservation. Growing crops uses 60 percent of all freshwater in the United States, and a staggering 80 percent in the drought-stricken West. Accordingly, when water is conserved on private croplands, water resources on public lands can more easily support residences, wildlife, and recreation. Through initiatives like the Conservation Stewardship Program, farmers can receive financial benefits for conserving water — the more they conserve, the higher the payment. This program can be particularly effective among the Colorado River Basin states, which are in the process of negotiating significant cuts to their annual water use. Almost 60 percent of the land in the Colorado River Basin states is federal public land, all of which depends on healthy natural resources to support ecosystems.

“All of these programs are a big part of the climate solution,” Faeth said on The Landscape podcast. “We want our farmers and ranchers to be able to stay on the land, remain viable, and keep being a part of providing us with food security, climate benefits, healthy water, healthy air — all of those things that we get from our working lands.”

Sun shines through the spray of a crop irrigation system. Aqua Mechanical | Flickr

Migratory species on public lands can also be supported by the Farm Bill. By enrolling in Farm Bill programs, farmers can improve the migratory corridors that fish and wildlife depend on, many of which connect with public lands. Across the United States, species depend on healthy forests, accessible waterways, and diverse ecosystems in order to migrate from one place to another, especially as climate change causes species to seek new habitats due to rapidly changing environments. Federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management have prioritized properly managing wildlife on public lands, but their efforts cannot reach the 50 percent of land across the U.S. that is privately-owned agricultural land that also supports wildlife.

Finding diverse and innovative ways to protect landscapes that support local communities and preserve the land’s specific values is critical in order to achieve the nationwide goal of protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, known as the 30×30 initiative. Because half of United States land is agricultural land, voluntary private land conservation is an essential tool to achieve 30×30, and Farm Bill programs give producers the resources to do so.

“We can’t achieve [the 30×30 goal] looking to public lands alone,” said Faeth. “Voluntary private land conservation can be a big part of the solution.”

Landowner and Farmer Darrel Kjerstad has farmed a variety of crops over the years, and along the way, he has utilized the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Quinn, SD. U.S. Department of Agriculture | Flickr

Regional Priorities

The Farm Bill incentivizes outcomes that improve the lives of all Americans, and its voluntary rather than mandatory programs traditionally receive bipartisan support. The 2018 Farm Bill passed the House with 89 percent support and the Senate with 87 percent support and earned endorsements from a wide variety of stakeholders. In 2023, the bill will likely receive continued support from national farm groups; nutrition and public health officials; and advocacy groups representing conservation, recreation, rural development, faith-based interests, local food systems, and organic production, just to name a few.

Disagreements over the Conservation Title have mostly been regional. In the West, farmers often need assistance to help with the impacts of historic drought, while farmers in the East and South have experienced more frequent flooding in recent years. In either case, political leaders seek to ensure that constituents are covered against these extreme weather patterns.

Charlie Roberts, owner of Roberts Farms and a fourth generation farmer with an agronomy degree and young family, focuses on utilizing conservation practices developed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). U.S. Department of Agriculture | Flickr

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, has made it clear that ongoing aridification in the West has increased the need for spending on conservation efforts, such as watershed protections for areas under U.S. Forest Service management, to ensure that farmers have enough water to sustain crops in the future.

“It’s been an important obligation of mine, committee hearing after committee hearing after committee hearing, to raise the alarm around that drought,” Bennet said in an interview with CPR News earlier this year, “And to fight for more robust conservation dollars so that we can respond and our farmers and ranchers and other producers have a fighting chance.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Senator Michael Bennet visit a local farm in Palisade, CO. U.S. Department of Agriculture | Flickr

As we approach the September 30 expiration of the current Farm Bill, legislators and community members alike must recognize the impact that the far-reaching legislation has on American waters, ecosystems, and landscapes. The 2023 Farm Bill has the potential to give farmers a robust safety net and expand nutrition assistance across the country, as well as provide serious incentives to bolster conservation and strengthen public lands in the process, protecting the wildlife and people that depend on them.

Featured Image: Winter wheat is grown on a proposed Agricultural Land Easement near the Bridger Mountains in Gallatin County, MT. USDA NRCS Montana | Flickr