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Eliminating a USDA program that helps farmers increase yields while protecting the environment would cost taxpayers billions of dollars in economic and ecological benefits, according to a study by conservation-minded scientists.
The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which currently helps U.S. landowners manage 72 million acres of agricultural land, is zeroed out in the House version of the farm bill. The Senate version enacts reforms and small reductions in the program.
CSP needs more, not less funding, advocates say.
“It’s been a great tool for me,” said Aaron Johnson, a grain and cattle farmer from Madison, South Dakota. “I certainly appreciate the support I get from taxpayers to help make my farm a lot more environmentally friendly.”
Johnson is a third-generation farmer who raises organic corn, soybeans, oats, alfalfa and cattle. As a member of Dakota Rural Action, he advocates for better farming practices through conservation programs.
“I’m pretty much brain-washed now, seeing the improvements from participating in CSP,” Johnson said. “It’s helped me to be a better utilizer of fertilizer. Also, rotational grazing is beneficial to the cattle and the land.”
Johnson is in his fifth year with the program and recently renewed his contract for another five years, he said.
“When you’re better to the land, you’re better to the cattle. We’ve got a lot more diversity in the pastures now, and I’ve even been able to increase my stocking rate due to the rotational system. Learning a lot about nutrient placement and management. It’s really hard to figure out what the crop needs and wants. I feel like CSP has helped me get better at that, and our yields have gone up while we’ve been enrolled.”
According to an analysis by researcher Paige Stanley conducted for the Union of Concerned Scientists, CSP delivers large benefits to farmers and the public for every dollar invested in the conservation program.
“We were able to estimate a $3.95 return on investment per taxpayer dollar, which was pretty surprising,” Stanley said. “Part of that comes from the way CSP is structured. Farmers have to be meeting a minimum of three resource concerns. It’s that set of stacked practices that provides such a large benefit for the conservation investment in CSP. Take soil erosion, for instance, where going no-till might not decrease erosion nearly as much as combining no-till with cover crops.”
The UCS analysis comes at a critical time, as Congress is negotiating the last details on a farm bill that will determine the shape of scope of USDA conservation programs for the next five years. The House bill eliminates CSP entirely, while the Senate bill enacts reforms and slightly reduces available acreage and funding. The final details will be decided by House and Senate farm bill conference committee negotiators.
“If the House version is successful in completely eliminating CSP and moving a smaller amount of funding over to EQIP (a separate land program), there would still be a small return on investment, but those returns are much, much smaller than spending the funds on CSP,” Stanley said.
In addition to the 4 to 1 return on investment, the Union of Concerned Scientists report found that the House provision to eliminate CSP would result in $4.7 billion in lost benefits per year. The Senate version of the bill would lead to a net increase of benefits valued at approximately $1.2 billion per year, a net $5 billion difference between the two bills.
Change in benefits calculated across four possible farm bill outcomes: 1) House bill is adopted and CSP is eliminated, 2) Senate bill is adopted, but without program improvements, and 3) Senate bill is adopted but with improvements resulting in a) a small increase (10 percent) to the expected ROI in both the Minimal and Likely ROI scenarios and b) a larger (33 percent) increase in both the Minimal and Likely ROI scenarios (see appendix for more details)
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) analyzed CSP data and developed a map showing state-level impacts of conservation funding implications of the House and Senate bills. “As farm bill conferees work to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills, it is critical they understand the state-by-state funding implications of the House’s proposal to eliminate CSP,” said Alyssa Charney, NSAC Senior Policy Specialist.
“Not only would the House approach cut nearly $5 billion in working lands conservation funding nationally and eliminate the nation’s largest and only comprehensive conservation program, but it would also significantly disadvantage many major agricultural states that depend on working lands conservation assistance. This redistribution of funds at the expense of many agricultural states to benefit but a few states raises significant cause for alarm.”
“A final conference report must protect the existing toolbox of working lands conservation programs, ensuring that funds are not redistributed to drastically disadvantage so many agricultural states,” Charney added.
The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Michael Lavender has been sharing study results with policymakers and staff. He reports positive reception to the CSP data.
“One of the most significant things about CSP, as the report documents, is the many benefits that come from stacking conservation practices and rewarding farmers for that whole farm planning aspect,” he said. “This makes CSP effective, but also complicates the ability to simply quantify the outcomes.”
“The Senate bill still reduces acreage and funding for CSP, but because of several reforms that focus on more high impact practices, there is still a multi-billion benefit per year,” Lavender said. “High impact practices such as resource conserving crop rotations and management-intensive rotational grazing, those things actually increase benefits to farmers and returns to taxpayers.”
Johnson, the South Dakota farmer, said he thinks CSP helps new farmers. He said the approaches the program supports are especially suited to younger farmers who don’t have the same experience Johnson has.
“I really feel like royalty. I have the right last name. I have access to land. I don’t have a silver spoon by any means, but I have advantages” Johnson said.
“CSP does provide an opportunity for some of these young and beginning farmers that might not have those same advantages. With CSP, they could help to improve a piece of more affordable marginal land. CSP can help support conservation practices that set these young farmers on the right path. I think it’s a way for society to invest in beginning, young, smaller farms. Getting younger, beginning farmers up and running is what the taxpayers need to invest in,” Johnson said.
The farm bill conference committee, where the future of CSP and other farm bill programs will be decided, held its first public meeting September 5th. Congressional negotiators face a September 30th expiration of the existing farm bill.