Conservation in the 2018 Farm Bill

The long-awaited 2018 Farm Bill was finally passed late last year and contains language dictating federal farm policy for at least the next five years. Though not a major funding part of the bill, the conservation sections play a significant role in resource conservation and wildlife habitat placement on agriculture lands. These programs fund many practices, from short-term conserva­tion such as annual cover cropping for soil health to perpetual wetland easements that protect fish and wild­life habitat permanently.

Each of the four main programs persist in the new legislation though funding levels have shifted slightly.

Conservation Reserve Program

CRP, acreage caps and soil rental rates typically steal the show in any conservation-related discussion over the farm bill, and 2018 was no exception. Moving forward, there will be a few changes to CRP. The acreage cap will grow from a current 24 million acres to 27 million by 2023, with at least 30% of those acres being enrolled in one of the continuous CRP practices. These typically target high-value habitat or priority concerns such as buffer strips, waterways, etc. Rental rates and signup incentive payments have also been decreased for any new CRP contracts. Under a general signup, the soil rental rate will now be no more than 85% of the county average, with continuous signups being no more than 90%.

It’s yet to be determined if these changes will impact recent increased demand for CRP. Language regard­ing timing for signups for CRP has been fairly vague from USDA. It has been hinted that continuous signups may start first, followed by a general signup this winter. One other im­portant note is that a general signup is mandated to be held at least yearly, and with the number of acres com­ing out increasing, there will likely be acres available in the near future.

Conservation Stewardship Program

Originally rumored to be terminat­ed in the new farm bill, CSP will persist. However, funding will be cut for the program slowly over time. Contract extensions will be granted, and there may be opportunities for additional signups moving forward. The first signup for CSP under the 2018 legislation appeared in mid- April with a May 10, 2019, dead­line. This signup timing has been consistent over the past few years, and as long as funding will allow, signups will likely continue to roll out at this timeframe. The main ad­justment that may affect the program is funding levels will now be based on an annual dollar allocation versus annual acreage caps.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program

Where CSP got a trim in the new farm bill, EQIP picked up some slack with an increase of more than $1 billion over the term of the legislation. Most of the program’s structure will remain the same as the 2014 version, with some flexibility on practice payments. The funding pool that did increase was wildlife provisions, expanding from a total of 5% to 10%. If you were considering an EQIP application to implement wildlife habitat in your operation, now could be great time to apply.

Keep in mind there are multiple benefits to most practices. For exam­ple, doing some brush management on field edges is certainly beneficial to wildlife but can also increase yields due to increased water, sun­light and nutrient availability.

Agricultural Conservation Easement Program

The main conservation title in ACEP is Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE), formerly known as WRP easements. Funding for easements as a whole increased to $450 million a year. For MFA trade territory, this should mean new easements available to those interested in WRE through the term of the 2018 bill.

Whatever conservation goals you have moving forward, there’s a good amount of support in this farm bill. The theme under conservation seems to be water quality. Some em­bedded titles within CRP and others will highlight new and existing programs geared toward managing runoff from agricultural lands.

If you are interested in any of these programs, keep in touch with your local USDA Service Center as the 2018 Farm Bill gets implement­ed. Remember that MFA is ready to assist you with the goods and ser­vices needed to place conservation on the landscape.

Adam Jones joined MFA as natu­ral resource conservation specialist in January 2019 after more than 10 years with the Missouri Department of Conservation, most recently as a wildlife management biologist. Adam grew up on a small livestock and row-crop farm in Lewis County, Mo., before earning a degree in fisheries and wildlife at the University of Missouri. A lifelong outdoorsman, he now enjoys hunting and camping with his wife, Heather, and their three children.

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