Conservation and the New Farm Bill

By Bill McGuire | February 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Feb 2003

Don't see the connection between the farm bill and bobwhite quail? Well, the farm bill shapes United States agriculture. Agriculture shapes 50 percent of the land in the nation, and bobwhite quail are among the many species of wildlife that live on agricultural landscapes. Therefore, whatever affects agriculture affects bobwhite quail.

The farm bill takes on added importance in Missouri because 65 percent of the state is in agricultural production. It's a $4.8 billion a year industry that employs many thousands of Missourians.

Missouri's streams, lakes, forests, prairies, wetlands and other natural resources also benefit the state's economy. Fish and wildlife related recreation contributes $2.1 billion a year, and tourism adds a whopping $8 billion. Many more thousands of Missourians work in these industries.

Agriculture and our natural resources are intimately intertwined. The new federal farm bill has been framed to ensure that conservation and agricultural production remain mutually beneficial.

Congress passed the first farm bill in 1933, and has typically created a new one about every five years to help agriculture adapt to societal needs, world markets, weather changes, market price fluctuations and other factors.

Conservation became a centerpiece of the farm bill in the 1985 version with the creation of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Highly Erodible Land (HEL)/Sodbuster/Swampbuster provisions. CRP provides an annual payment to landowners in return for idling environmentally sensitive cropland and establishing cover, such as grass, legumes, trees and shrubs. To date, more than $2 billion has been provided to Missouri producers to secure conservation on more than 1.7 million acres. HEL/Sodbuster/Swampbuster encourages producers to farm erodible land in ways that conserve soil and to refrain from converting wetlands to cropland. In return, taxpayers fund crop price supports, disaster assistance, and other assistance producers sometimes need to continue farming.

The 1990 Farm Bill continued the conservation programs of the 1985 Farm Bill. A new feature in the 1990 bill was the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), which provided a much-needed alternative to producers that try, often unsuccessfully, to farm flood-prone land. In return for payments that may equal the full agricultural value of the land, producers restore wetlands (with cost-share) and provide an easement on the land.

Since then, Missouri producers have received $86.8 million through the WRP to restore 708 individual wetlands totaling 99,000 acres. Many additional producers, representing thousands of acres, have requested to participate, pending funding availability.

In addition to benefiting farmers, WRP has improved water quality in rivers, streams and lakes and created critical wetland habitat for fish and wildlife. As a bonus, communities and farms along big rivers, like the Mississippi, Missouri and Grand rivers, benefit tremendously from the extra floodwater storage provided by these lands.

In 1996, Congress added two new conservation programs. One was the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) which provides cost-share to producers who are interested in managing some of their land with wildlife as the priority. Specifically, WHIP emphasizes wildlife that haven't been faring so well, such as the prairie-chicken and bobwhite quail, and vanishing natural communities, such as prairies, savannas and glades. To date, WHIP has provided $2.1 million in Missouri to develop critical habitat on 416 individual properties.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) also debuted in 1996. It provides financial assistance to help producers incorporate conservation on lands where agricultural production is the priority. EQIP has provided $15.6 million to achieve conservation on production lands.

Last spring, Congress completed the most recent farm bill, titled the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, and President Bush signed it into law on May 13. Of the $135.3 billion for agricultural programs, the new farm bill directs $39 billion to be dedicated to conservation. In fact, conservation funding in the 2002 Farm Bill is the largest increase for conservation in any farm bill ever.

Following are highlights of conservation programs either continued or created by the 2002 Farm:

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

The 2002 Farm Bill increased the enrollment authority of CRP to 39.2 million acres, up from 36.4 acres in the previous bill

A new eligibility requirement is that the land must have been farmed four out of the six years before the enactment of the 2002 Farm Bill. This focuses the program on existing, not new, cropland.

Selecting wildlife-beneficial cover, particularly native grasses and forbs, and application of prescribed burning and/or light discing every 3-4 years helps bobwhite quail, prairie chickens and other upland species that have been on long-term decline.

CRP Continuous Sign-up allows on-going enrollment of riparian areas, filter strips and other practices that provide buffers to improve water quality which, in turn, improves conditions for aquatic species that need attention. Whole-field enrollment is possible. Landowner offers that best address soil, water, air and wildlife are the most competitive.

Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP)

A continuous and competitive sign-up allows for lands to be offered anytime. Permanent and 30-year easements are the enrollment choices that draw the widest interest.

Lands classified as prior converted cropland (former wetlands) or farmed wetlands are eligible. The program also allows enrollment of some adjacent lands, including riparian areas meeting certain criteria, to buffer restored wetlands or adjacent stream systems. The national enrollment authority for WRP is 250,000 acres per year.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)

This program is designed to help achieve conservation on lands that are actively managed to produce livestock forage or crops. Private, non-industrial forestland is now also a purpose of EQIP. The sign-up is competitive and on-going.

EQIP is one of the best-funded programs in the new farm bill. It provided $400 million nationally in 2002, and will increase to $1.3 billion per year in 2007. Soil, water, air, fish and wildlife, forests and other resources are the treatment objectives of this program.

Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP)

Unlike EQIP, WHIP is directed towards lands that are managed with wildlife as the priority. The sign-up for WHIP is competitive and on-going, and the program can be used to provide habitat for prairie-chicken, Topeka shiner, Niangua darter, bobwhite quail or any other species that has been on long-term decline and is in need of attention. The national funding level for WHIP is $15 million in 2002 and ramps up to $85 million per year in 2007.

Grassland Reserve Program (GRP)

Conservation of prairies is the focus of GRP, which is one of the new programs created by Congress in the 2002 Farm Bill. GRP offers compensation in return for an easement or other long-term agreement from participants to maintain native prairie and/or undertake prairie restorations.

Enrolled lands can be hayed or grazed under a conservation plan that conserves the prairie, but the land cannot be converted to cropland, building sites or other uses. An additional value of GRP is that it conserves prairies in concert with livestock production. The enrollment authority for GRP is 2 million acres nationally over the life of the farm bill. GRP is in Development by the USDA and is not yet available to Missourians.

Forest Land Enhancement Program (FLEP)

While EQIP addresses forestry needs in concert with agricultural production, Congress created FLEP to provide focused funding for forestry needs. FLEP can be used for a variety of forestry purposes, including reforestation and improving the health and vigor of forests. FLEP is funded at $100 million total through 2007. FLEP should be available in the near future.

Conservation Security Program (CSP)

The new CSP is under development by the USDA and will be significantly different from any other program ever created by a farm bill in that it provides income-support to agricultural producers for conservation from the land.

With CSP, landowners who manage their property to address soil erosion, herbicide/pesticide or nutrient runoff, air quality, wildlife habitat and other important conservation issues can receive annual payments for their conservation efforts. The greater the conservation value, the higher the payment (up to the payment cap allowed by the program). The funding authority for CSP will be decided annually at the national level.

All the conservation programs provided for in the 2002 Farm Bill are voluntary. Each producer has free choice to participate or not participate, depending on their conservation needs and individual situation.

Thanks to the new farm bill, the agriculture community can continue to provide society with ample food and fiber while conserving soil, water and air quality and our fish, forest and wildlife resources.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler