by Rebecca Chillrud
January 30, 2019
Agriculture is vital to the Chesapeake region. There are more than 83,000 farms in the watershed that make up a $10 billion industry and provide us with food and fiber. However, agriculture is also the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Bay.
Many farmers are working to implement positive conservation practices that reduce their impact on local waterways and the Bay, but these practices can often be costly. One of the main ways farmers are able to obtain support for these projects is through programs funded by the federal Farm Bill.
The first Farm Bill was written in 1933 in response to the Great Depression, with the goal of providing aid to farmers as well as alleviating hunger. Since then, new versions of the Farm Bill have been passed every five years or so. In December, Congress passed the $867 billion 2018 Farm Bill, which replaced the 2014 version of the legislation. Though the total funding for conservation programs stayed the same, each of these programs were funded at different levels. Here’s what the updated bill will mean for farmers throughout the Chesapeake region.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program
The Chesapeake Bay watershed used to have its own source of funding from the Farm Bill, known as the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative. This program, which was authorized in 2008 and provided an average of $47 million each year to farmers in this region, aimed “to provide assistance to agricultural producers to minimize excess nutrients and sediments in order to restore, preserve and protect the Chesapeake Bay.”
In 2014, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative was combined with several other programs into the competitive, nationwide Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). This program provided a total of $68 million to the Chesapeake region between 2014 and 2018.
RCPP previously received $100 million of dedicated funding per year as well as an additional (approximate) $150 million from “donor funds,” or money contributed from other Farm Bill-funded conservation programs. The 2018 Farm Bill eliminates the donor funds system and increases RCPP’s dedicated funding to $300 million per year. In addition, the 2014 bill set aside 35 percent of the RCPP funding for eight “Critical Conservation Areas,” one of which is Chesapeake watershed. The 2018 bill ups the portion of RCPP funding for Critical Conservation Areas to 50 percent.
The 2018 Farm Bill also hopes to make RCPP more attractive to farmers by simplifying the application process. The amount of paperwork required to apply for RCPP funding has been cited as one of the major deterrents by potential applicants.
Conservation Reserve Program and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has been around since 1985, pays farmers to replace crops with environmentally-beneficial plant species, like native grasses, in areas that are sensitive or susceptible to problems like erosion. In 2014, the Farm Bill provided funding to support nationwide conversion of 24 million acres of land each year. The 2018 bill will increase that to an annual 27 million acres by 2023.
The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), an offshoot of CRP, will also benefit from increased funding. CREP helps farmers install conservation measures that help keep animals out of streams, like streamside fencing, and provides funding for streamside forest buffers. Forest buffers, or trees and shrubs planted alongside rivers and streams, provide a variety of environmental benefits, including preventing pollution from entering waterways, stabilizing stream banks, providing food and habitat to wildlife and keeping streams cool during hot weather.
In addition to providing more funding to install forest buffers, the 2018 Farm Bill also increases the percentage of management costs that CREP will cover. Management of forest buffers has historically been a major pitfall, as farmers who do plant buffers often don’t have the time, equipment or knowledge to properly maintain them.
Recognizing the importance of forest buffers, the Chesapeake Bay Program set a goal in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement to restore 900 miles of riparian forest buffers per year and conserve existing buffers until at least 70 percent of riparian areas in the watershed are forested. Since 2010, the average length of forest buffers planted each year has reached just 32 percent of the annual restoration target. Plantings have slowed in recent years due to a number of factors, including a lack of resources and limited funding for maintenance.
Finally, the new Farm Bill allows for farmers to receive funds for projects prior to completed installation. This change makes conservation projects more accessible for lower-income farmers, who may not have been able to pay the costs of installation up front.
Conservation Stewardship Program
The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) helps agricultural producers implement environmentally-friendly practices on active agricultural lands, rather than taking lands out of production as in CRP. These practices include planting cover crops, low- or no-till and restoring habitat for wildlife and pollinators. Program participants receive payments based on performance.
The 2018 Farm Bill changes the structure of CSP from an acreage cap to a simple funding cap, leaving the number of total acres enrolled up to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It also reduces total funding for CSP. The funding that was cut from CSP was used instead to increase funding to programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides funding and technical assistance to farmers to address any environmental problems, like nutrient and sediment runoff, and/or create environmental benefits, like restored wildlife habitat.
The last Farm Bill provided a total of eight billion dollars in funding to EQIP between 2014 and 2018. The 2018 bill provides a total of $9.1 billion dollars from 2019 through 2023, an increase of one billion dollars and one of the biggest boosts in the new bill. In addition, 10 percent of the total funds need to go towards practices that benefit wildlife habitat, doubling the five percent requirement from the 2014 bill.
Implementing conservation practices on agricultural lands is vital to successfully cleaning up local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Find out more about the impact of agriculture and how farmers are helping to protect water quality.