June 21, 2017
Farm Bill Primer: The Conservation Title
The conservation title of a farm bill generally contains a
number of reauthorizations, amendments, and new
programs that encourage farmers and ranchers to
voluntarily implement resource-conserving practices on
private land. Starting in 1985, farm bills have greatly
broadened the range of topics considered to be
conservation. While the number of conservation programs
has increased and techniques to address resource problems
continue to emerge, the basic approach has remained
unchanged: financial and technical assistance supported by
education and research programs.
Conservation Program Portfolio
Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA), these programs can be grouped into the following
categories based on similarities: working land programs,
land retirement programs, easement programs, partnership
programs, conservation compliance, and other overarching
provisions (see text box and CRS Report R40763,
Agricultural Conservation: A Guide to Programs).
reductions will have on a new farm bill’s baseline. While
most producers are in favor of conservation programs, it is
unclear how much of a reduction in other farm program
spending they would be willing to support to expand or
maintain these efforts.
Select Farm Bill Conservation Programs
Working lands programs allow private land to remain in
production while implementing various conservation practices to
address natural resource concerns specific to the area.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP),
Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and Agricultural
Management Assistance (AMA).
Land retirement programs provide payments to private
agricultural landowners for temporary changes in land use and
management to achieve environmental benefits.
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)––includes the
Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, Farmable
Wetland Program, and Transition Incentives Program.
Other types of conservation programs—such as watershed
programs, emergency land rehabilitation programs, and
technical assistance—are authorized in other non-farm-bill
legislation. Most of these programs have permanent
authorities and receive appropriations annually through the
discretionary appropriations process. These programs are
not generally addressed in the context of a farm bill unless
amendments to the program are proposed.
Easement programs impose a permanent or long-term land
use restriction that is voluntarily placed on the land in exchange
for a payment.
Title II of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (2014 farm bill; P.L.
113-79) reauthorized, repealed, consolidated, and amended
a number of conservation programs. Most of the farm bill
conservation programs are authorized to receive mandatory
funding (i.e., they do not require an annual appropriation)
and include authorities that expire with other farm bill
programs at the end of FY2018.
Budget and Baseline
The conservation title is one of the larger non-nutrition
titles of the farm bill, accounting for 6% of the total
projected 2014 farm bill cost, or $58 billion of the total
$956 billion in 10-year mandatory funding authorized
(FY2014-FY2023). Budgetary constraints may be an
important consideration in the debate over conservation in a
new farm bill as was the case during debate on the 2014
farm bill, which was influenced in part by the demand for
fiscal restraint. Ultimately the 2014 farm bill reduced the
conservation title by $3.97 billion over 10 years, or 24% of
the total farm bill reductions. In addition to a reduction in
mandatory authorization, the conservation title continues to
be affected by budgetary dynamics such as sequestration
and reductions through annual appropriations (see CRS
Report R41245, Reductions in Mandatory Agriculture
Program Spending). It remains uncertain what impact these
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and
Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP).
Partnership programs create opportunities to target and
leverage existing conservation program funding for specific areas
and resource concerns.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP)
Conservation compliance prohibits a producer from
receiving select federal farm program benefits (including
conservation assistance and crop insurance premium subsidies)
when conservation program requirements for highly erodible
lands and wetlands are not met.
Highly erodible land conservation (Sodbuster), wetland
conservation (Swampbuster), and Sodsaver.
Other conservation programs and provisions include
Conservation Innovation Grants, the Grassroots Source Water
Protection Program, Voluntary Public Access, and the Habitat
Arguments for expanding conservation programs in earlier
farm bills proved particularly persuasive in light of
documentation that large backlogs of interested and eligible
producers were unable to enroll because of a lack of funds.
Debate on a new farm bill could see similar arguments, as
demand to participate in many of the conservation programs
exceeds the available program dollars several times over.
In FY2016, 27% of the applications received for EQIP and
39% of the applications received for AMA were funded.
Farm Bill Primer: The Conservation Title
The FY2016 CRP general sign-up resulted in 1.9 million
acres offered for enrollment and 411,000 acres accepted
(22%). Easements under ACEP also faced a limited
acceptance rate, with agricultural land easements enrolling
14% of applications and wetland reserve easements
accepting 16% of offers in FY2016. The new RCPP also
experienced high demand, accepting 88 of the 147 projects
proposed (60%) in FY2017 and 84 of the 265 project
proposed (32%) in FY2016. Large, ongoing backlogs could
provide a case for additional funding, while other policy
mechanisms could be proposed to reduce demand.
Working Land or Land Retirement
Land retirement programs (e.g., CRP) provide producers
with financial incentives to temporarily remove from
production and restore environmentally sensitive land. In
contrast, working lands programs (e.g., EQIP) allow land to
remain in production and provide producers with financial
incentives to adopt resource-conserving practices. Over
time, high commodity prices, changing land rental rates,
and new conservation technologies have led to a shift in
farm bill conservation policy toward an increased focus on
conservation working lands programs. Some of this shift
had already occurred in the last decade and was continued
in the 2014 farm bill as the percentage of mandatory
program funding for land retirement programs declined
relative to working lands programs. With lower commodity
prices, a new farm bill could shift this focus again,
potentially increasing funding for land retirement programs.
Most conservation and wildlife organizations support both
land retirement and working lands programs, but the
appropriate “mix” continues to be debated. That said, it is
likely that environmental interests would not support a
reduction in one without an increase in the other.
Targeting and Partnerships
Interest is increasing in programs that partner with state and
local communities to target conservation funding to local
areas of concern. A number of these partnership programs
were repealed in the 2014 farm bill and replaced with the
new RCPP. The program receives $100 million annually in
mandatory funding and redirects 7% of the funding from
other programs—EQIP, ACEP, CSP, and HFRP—to
partnership agreements. Now in its fourth year of project
selection, RCPP has received considerable interest. Some
praise the program’s ability to leverage non-federal funding
and incorporate the use of other state and local partners in a
targeted effort. Others question whether the program
redirects funds to areas with the greatest established support
rather than those with the greatest resource concerns.
The 2014 farm bill largely removed references that targeted
geographic and natural resource concerns (e.g., wildlife)
from the conservation title. Some such were removed
through repeal and replacement (e.g., the Chesapeake Bay
Watershed Program was repealed and replaced with RCPP)
while others were consolidated (e.g., the Wildlife Habitat
Incentives Program was consolidated into EQIP). These
measures largely made the conservation programs
geographically and resource neutral while providing
substantial discretion to USDA to allocate funding. This
shift resulted in some states and regions receiving more
funding than previous years and others receiving less.
Potentially smaller budget baselines and large application
backlogs could make it more difficult for Congress to target
areas or resources in a new farm bill, although support for
this generally continues.
The Food Security Act of 1985 (1985 farm bill, P.L. 99198) created the highly erodible lands conservation and
wetland conservation compliance programs, which tied
various farm program benefits to conservation standards.
The provision has since been amended numerous times to
remove certain benefits and add others. Most recently, the
2014 farm bill added crop insurance premium subsidies as a
program benefit that could be denied if conservation
standards were not met. In 2015, USDA issued a
requirement that to remain eligible for crop insurance
premium subsidies, producers must certify their compliance
with the conservation compliance provisions through a
standard form. Following the 2015 deadline, USDA
reported a 98.2% certification rate, suggesting that those not
certified were likely no longer farming or had filed forms
with discrepancies that may still be reconciled. Despite this
high compliance rate, many view the conservation
compliance requirements as burdensome, and they continue
to be unpopular among producer groups. Since its
introduction in the 1985 farm bill, conservation compliance
has remained a controversial issue, and debate will likely
Federal grant recipients must comply with governmentwide financial management policies and reporting
requirements when receiving federal grants and agreements.
Many of these reporting requirements are not new for
USDA programs and have been in place for a number of
years. Interested stakeholders raised concerns when a
number of the USDA conservation programs were
designated as grants (rather than direct payments) under a
2010 regulation. This designation triggered the use of a
Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number and
System for Award Management (SAM) registration. The
DUNS number requirement and SAM registration do not
affect individuals or entities that apply for conservation
programs using a Social Security Number. Rather, it applies
only to those applying as an entity with a Taxpayer
Identification Number or Employee Identification Number.
The initial adjustment to this requirement affected
thousands of conservation contract participants and
generated considerable interest in Congress. Additional
anecdotal evidence of concerns with these requirements has
also been presented to Congress, including delayed
applications, privacy concerns, and reduced program
Megan Stubbs, Specialist in Agricultural Conservation and
Natural Resources Policy
Farm Bill Primer: The Conservation Title
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