The Federal Farm Bill

corn field and cover crops - Leslie Bowman - 695x352

New corn emerges through a thick matting of terminated rye, the cover crop that protected the soil and conserved nutrients through the winter. Conservation practices like these protect our rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.

Leslie Bowman

Why the Farm Bill is Crucial to Saving the Bay

The Federal Farm Bill, passed every five years or so by Congress, is crucial to Bay cleanup efforts because it includes conservation programs that help farmers stop pollution at its source, build resiliency into our farms, and improve water quality so our families can enjoy clean water.

Agriculture is the second largest use of land (second only to forests) in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. There are roughly 83,000 farms in the watershed comprising nearly 30 percent of the 64,000 square-mile region. All jurisdictions, except for Washington, D.C., rely heavily on reductions from agriculture to achieve the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint water quality commitments.

Investments in agricultural conservation practices will help farms stay financially viable, create jobs, and help local economies. Studies have shown that implementing farm conservation practices at levels necessary to restore the Chesapeake Bay would create nearly 12,000 jobs and that every $1.00 invested in Bay restoration will generate $4.00. Nutrient management plans allow farmers to maximize yield, so they save on fertilizer costs while maintaining production. In addition, small businesses—from contractors to lumber yards to tree nurseries—benefit when a farmer installs a conservation practice on agricultural land.

Many conservation practices also have climate benefits, reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and making farms more resilient to weather extremes.

At CBF, we advocate for programs that establish on-the-ground conservation practices. These "best management practices" or BMPs include fencing livestock out of streams, planting buffers of trees and native plants along waterways, nutrient management plans that ensure farmers use the right amount of fertilizer, and many other practices essential to protecting our streams and the Bay. These practices are also the most cost-effective way to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to the Bay and achieve the goals of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. 

The Top Four Farm Bill Conservation Programs for the Bay

The federal Farm Bill is a package of legislation passed every five years or so, that has a large impact on farming communities across the United States--from how our food is grown to the types of support families with lower incomes have to access healthy foods. The most recent Farm Bill was passed in 2018. Contained within the Farm Bill is a conservation programs section that outlines ways the federal government can support farmers in achieving conservation priorities on their land.

At CBF, we advocate for commonsense conservation practices and the tools and resources necessary to help farmers steward their lands in a way that is economically profitable and environmentally sustainable. Farmers have long demonstrated that they are willing to invest their time, money, and effort to restore and protect local rivers and streams, but they need resources to make that a reality. 

Over the years, Congress has established a variety of different programs to support farmers in implementing conservation practices on their lands, directing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on how they want Farm Bill programs implemented. Within the USDA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is the main entity tasked with implementing conservation programs across the country, including within Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Here are four programs critical to the Chesapeake Bay.

1. Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program

Landowners across the watershed can protect water quality in their local rivers and streams by planting streamside forested buffers, wetlands, wildlife habitat, grass filter strips, native grass stands and more. The Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) provides funding to landowners across the watershed to implement these and associated conservation practices, like installing alternate water sources and stream fencing to keep out livestock.   

CREP is implemented via a partnership agreement between USDA and the states. Through CREP, landowners can be reimbursed up to 100 percent of their installation costs and are provided an annual rent for land that is taken out of production. CREP participants also receive free assistance to plan, design, and implement streamside forested buffers and associated best practices.

Forested buffers significantly reduce sediment and nutrient runoff and are one of the most cost-effective methods of improving water quality. Recognizing this, the Chesapeake Bay watershed states committed to foresting 70 percent of the riparian (stream bank) area in the watershed by 2025 by restoring 900 miles of buffers each year.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is a longtime partner in the CREP program. In Pennsylvania alone, CBF's restoration specialists have assisted farmers in installing more than 2,300 miles of stream buffers since 1997. Working with many partners, we have leveraged roughly $25 million in private, state, and federal resources.

Unfortunately, buffer implementation has declined dramatically in recent years and is not on pace to achieve stated goals. Improvements to CREP in the 2018 Farm Bill, based on legislation introduced by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and with substantial input from CBF, include ensuring farmers have adequate financial support to maintain buffers and protect their investments and that they are fairly compensated for expenses associated with buffers.  CBF is working to ensure states are able to take advantage of these new provisions. 

2. Regional Conservation Partnership Program

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) funds conservation-focused partnerships. The Chesapeake Bay watershed has been designated as one of the RCPP’s eight Critical Conservation Areas (CCA) across the country, which qualifies the watershed to receive a portion of dedicated funding for projects that help reduce nutrient and sediment runoff. 

RCPP projects are often designed to implement effective and compelling solutions to natural resource management priorities, integrating multiple innovative conservation approaches.  Examples of RCPP conservation investments include funding towards best management practices such as rotational grazing and other practices that improve soil health, livestock stream exclusion, off-stream watering, and forested buffers. 

In the current Farm Bill, mandatory funding for RCPP tripled from $100 million annually to $300 million annually. This also included an increase in the proportion dedicated to Critical Conservation Areas, including the Chesapeake Bay watershed, from 35 percent to 50 percent. 

There are several provisions within the RCPP program that benefit the Chesapeake Bay. For example, priority is placed on projects that: 

  • implement multi-state watershed restoration plans; 
  • bring together a diverse array of stakeholders into a project; and
  • those that are outcome driven (delivering a high percentage of environmental benefits to address conservation goals like improved water quality). 

The RCPP program in the 2018 Farm Bill also provides flexibility for partners to receive reimbursements for outreach and project management. These reimbursements help reduce the administrative burden on lead project partners.

3. Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)

EQIP shares the costs with farmers for installing basic on-farm practices that keep fertilizer on the farm and out of the water. Participants in the EQIP program install or implement conservation practices on eligible agricultural land, and NRCS provides financial cost-share assistance and technical assistance through a contract. Payments for conservation improvements and activities cover:

  • income foregone by placing land into conservation; and
  • costs incurred in installing and implementing conservation practices, including planning, design, materials, equipment, installation, maintenance and more. 

How much money EQIP provides to farmers depends on how USDA weights certain practices that promote soil health, water quality, nutrient management, and more. Up to 75 percent of the costs of certain conservation practices may be covered, and for socially disadvantaged, beginning farmers, and veteran farmers, that cost-share is up to 90 percent. 

In all watershed states, demand for this program exceeds supply even though funding for EQIP was increased from roughly $8 billion to $9.175 billion over five years in the 2018 Farm Bill.

In addition to program demand being higher than funding supply, equitable allocation of funding to states needing greater support for conservation practices implementation has not always occurred. This is particularly relevant for Pennsylvania, where funding need for agricultural conservation practices is the highest. 

In 2017, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed the NRCS allocation of EQIP funds nationally. The GAO found that the process for allocating EQIP funds to state offices was not based on environmental need, but was driven by historical funding amounts. Importantly, GAO found that Pennsylvania’s EQIP allocation was far below the amount of acres needing conservation treatment, suggesting the Commonwealth was not getting its fair share of EQIP dollars. Resolving this funding discrepancy is essential to achieving the targets of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. 

4. The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) 

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) provides an incentive to help agricultural producers maintain their existing conservation systems and adopt additional conservation activities to address priority resource concerns like those in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. CSP helps farmers identify natural resource problems in their operation and provides technical and financial assistance to solve those problems or obtain higher levels of stewardship.

Unfortunately, funding for CSP has been reduced to roughly $3.975 billion over five years, but some new incentives in EQIP could potentially make up for some of this loss.

Learn more about agricultural conservation and the benefits it’s having for farmers and the Bay:

  • Farmer Success Stories: Ask most farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed about water quality and they will tell you clean streams and a clean Chesapeake are important to them. Meet just a few who are implementing Best Management Practices that restore our waters and improve farm earnings and productivity.
  • Best Management Practices: Conservation practices, frequently called best management practices, or BMPs, are tools that farmers can use to reduce soil and fertilizer runoff, properly manage animal waste, and protect water and air quality on their farms. Learn more about these practices and how they help protect the Bay.
  • Mountains-to-Bay Grazing Alliance: Seldom has one farming system provided so many benefits in such a variety of areas—farm profitability, global and local environmental health, soil health, and sustainability—as rotational grazing. Read about how this public-private partnership is helping farmers innovate to save the Bay.
  • Clagett Farm: Did you know CBF has our own regenerative agricultural farm? At Clagett Farm, our ultimate goal is to use farming methods that are truly sustainable both economically and environmentally. The farm raises crops, beef cattle, and sheep and supports a Community Supported Agriculture.

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Founded in 1967, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is the largest independent conservation organization dedicated solely to saving the Bay.

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