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House Passes Farm Bill – Scales Back Some Conservation Programs

On Thursday, July 11, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2642, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act, which extends most major federal farm, rural development, and agricultural trade programs through fiscal year (FY) 2018.

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The measure reauthorizes most conservation activities but consolidates the 23 current programs into 13. The conservation programs administered by the Agriculture Department provide cost-sharing technical assistance for farmers, ranchers, foresters, and landowners. The conservation programs, which are voluntary and incentive-based, seek to protect and restore water quality and quantity, air quality, and wildlife habitat.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which is one of the most popular and effective conservation programs, allows agricultural landowners to receive assistance for taking agricultural land out of production and to establish long-term resource-conserving vegetative covers to protect topsoil from erosion and reduce water runoff to improve groundwater, lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams. The covers also increase wildlife populations by providing a place for them to live. Under the bill, the number of acres enrolled in CRP would be reduced gradually from the current 32 million acres to 24 million acres in FY 2018.

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) encourages producers to adopt new conservation techniques while maintaining current conservation practices in order to protect natural resources. Under H.R. 2642, enrolled acreage in CSP is limited to 8.7 million acres for each fiscal year, down from the current 13.7 million acres. The bill also decreased the cap from 1 million to 750,000 acres in the Farmable Wetland Program, which restores farmable wetlands and associated buffers by improving the land’s hydrology and vegetation.

The bill establishes a new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program by consolidating the Wetland Reserve Program, the Grassland Reserve Program, and the Farmland Protection Program. The Agricultural Water Enhancement Program and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program would also be consolidated into other programs.

Under forestry programs, the bill reauthorizes the Forest Legacy Program, the Community Open Space Program, and the Healthy Forest Reserve Program. However, the measure does repeal five expired forestry programs, including: the Forest Land Enhancement, Watershed Forestry Assistance, Cooperative National Forest Products Marketing, Hispanic-Serving Institution Agricultural Land National Resources Leadership, and Tribal Watershed Forestry Assistance. The bill also authorizes the Forest Service to designate critical areas within the national forest system to address deteriorating forest health conditions due to insect infestation, drought, disease, or storm damage. If an area is designated as critical, the Forest Service is allowed a greater range of activities to address the problem.

The measure also allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enter into agreements with state foresters to provide restoration and protection services on National Forest System land. Restoration and protection activities include treating insect-infected trees, reducing hazardous land, and other activities that restore or improve forest, rangeland and, watershed health.

The Senate approved its five-year Farm Bill (S 964) June 10, with more modest cuts to these and other conservation programs. The House and Senate have until October 1 to complete and pass a final “Farm Bill.” If Congress can’t agree on a five-year bill before October 1, it may of course simply extend the old law again.

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