Declining funding for conservation programs does not meet demand

“The long-term viability of farms and ranches depends on the sustainable health of soil and water resources,” says Anna Johnson, policy manager at the Center for Rural Affairs. “However, most conservation practices require an initial investment from farmers and ranchers, which can be a barrier to implementation.”

Johnson recently published a report which tracks USDA Conservation Stewardship Program funding. CSP is one of the working land programs available to help farmers with the financial investments needed to pursue soil health and other conservation practices.

CSP serves farmers and ranchers who demonstrate they are already invested in conservation and intend to maintain and expand their current practices.

The CSP can be used for initiatives implemented across operations and for conservation improvements.

The 2014 Farm Act reduced the number of acres USDA could list in the CSP, and the 2018 Farm Act changed the funding structure for the program from a per acre basis to a dollar basis.

Since the 2008 agricultural law, funding for the CSP has been cut in half. In 2008, $ 2 billion was allocated to the CSP. In 2014, between $ 1.1 billion and $ 1.9 billion was allocated and in 2018 it was less than $ 1 billion.

Johnson reports, “Each year the USDA receives many more CSP applications than it has the capacity to fund. For example, in 2020, only 25% of PSC applications were funded. ”




Soybeans in a no-till field.

David Ekström

Although the USDA does not publish criteria for how CSP funds are allocated in the 50 states and five territories, it does publish the number of acres treated per state.

The top five states for general CSP enrollment (number of acres) in 2020 were:

  1. New Mexico: 933,753

  2. Utah: 563,636

  3. Oregon: 469,438

  4. California: 369,556

  5. Nebraska: 319,400

The top five states for PSC renewals (number of acres) in 2020 were:

  1. South Dakota: 409,975

  2. Illinois: 199,902

  3. Montana: 192,783

  4. Nebraska: 179,053

  5. Oregon: 122,211

Johnson, a soil health advocate, says investing in conservation is an investment in the future of the land and its productivity.

“We’re seeing a lot of attention being paid to soil health right now. The more funds available, the more people will be able to participate in working land programs, taking advantage of the benefits they offer, ”she said.

Johnson’s is one of two reports released in the past three months that detail the decrease in funds available for the CSP over the past two Farm Bills.

Michael Happ, Climate and Rural Communities Policy Associate at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, published another one which describes the allocation of funds and the increasing percentage of rejected requests.

“In my role, I focus on USDA conservation programs because they are useful and effective for farmers to deal with extreme weather conditions and be part of the climate solution,” Happ said.

As the big solutions to the climate crisis continue to be discussed, Happ’s message is that funding should be allocated where it works. EQIP and CSP offer real benefits to farmers and the environment and these are programs that already exist.

But the data shows the pressure on these programs.




A wetland in Indiana

Photo credit: USDA

A call for increased funding

“We’re based in Minnesota, and Minnesota has long been a leader in conservation agriculture,” says Happ. “Over the course of the program, Minnesota awarded more CSP contracts than any other state, but last year they’re in the last five or six states to connect farmers to CSP contracts. There is so much demand for these programs, but in states where, frankly, it is needed most, more farmers are being turned away.

According to the Happ report, “In 2020, Minnesota only awarded contracts to 14% of those who applied, ranking 47th out of 52 states and territories.”

In 2020, Minnesota awarded EQIP contracts to just 17% of the total number of applicants, placing the state 50th out of 52 states and territories among successful applicants.

“It is essential to get more funding for technical assistance in our county offices, more boots on the ground at the local level to give farmers what they need for the application process,” Happ said.

He adds, “These programs must also work for farmers of color who have good ideas for conserving their land through sustainable practices. They need to be connected to the technical support and resources they want and need.

In the CSP, 5% of contracts are reserved each year for “socially disadvantaged farmers,” the USDA term that includes farmers of color.

In the report, Happ clarifies that the 5% is a pool where applications from farmers of color are ranked only against each other rather than in the general pool with all other farmers.

“The data that exists on Farmers of Color at USDA can be confusing or misleading. This is in part because the data is not disaggregated by race at the state level (with the exception of Hispanic producers), only based on whether or not a farmer is classified as “socially disadvantaged.”

“By just looking at the data on the number of farmers who apply, you can tell that these programs have been successful,” says Happ. “It shows that farmers believe in themselves, that they are willing to invest their precious time and resources in trying to get support from CSP and EQIP. The demand is clear and we must respond to it.

About Keneth T. Graves

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