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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Agricultural Conservation and the Next Farm Bill

Megan Stubbs
Analyst in Agricultural Conservation and Natural Resources Policy

As Congress debates the next farm bill, the conservation title continues to receive increased attention and interest from farmers and ranchers as well as environmental and conservation organizations. Conservation programs, provisions, and funding authorized in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (2008 farm bill) will expire at the end of FY2012. Discussions for the conservation title could center on amending existing programs, adding new options to protect or restore resources on agricultural lands, and/or consolidating duplicative approaches.

Conservation is provided through a combination of technical assistance, cost-sharing, and performance-based incentives that are supported by education and research programs. The existing portfolio of conservation includes more than 20 programs, ranging in size and scope. Participation is voluntary and all farm bill conservation programs are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Generally, farm bill conservation programs may be grouped by similar characteristics, such as working lands, land retirement and easements, conservation compliance, and other programs and overarching provisions. The majority of these programs are authorized to received mandatory funding from USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC).

During this time of heightened budgetary concerns, additional emphasis is placed on reducing mandatory spending. In the past 25 years, conservation has received an increasing level of mandatory funding authorized through farm bills. Nutrition, direct payments, crop insurance, and conservation make up 99% of the 10-year estimated baseline funding for farm bill programs. As a result, conservation is one of the four major sources of mandatory program spending that is expected to be closely examined during reauthorization. Also, 37 farm bill provisions do not have baseline funding beyond FY2012, five of which are within the conservation title. It appears that funding continues to be at the forefront of discussions surrounding the conservation title, and could likely drive the debate for program reauthorization.

Aside from budgetary issues, other programmatic topics continue to be discussed. Major questions being debated about conservation include the following: (1) Should existing programs be amended, and if so, how? (2) Could savings be created by reducing program duplication? (3) How should funding be divided between programs for land retirement and for working lands? (4) Should conservation programs be subject to the same program limitations as other commodity support programs? (5) What will be the impact on the debate of new data that highlights the connection between conservation practices and positive environmental results? Answers to these questions have been offered in extensive testimony at hearings, and are reflected in the policy options that Congress is considering.

The federal response to environmental concerns related to agriculture is viewed as both supportive and restrictive. One of the primary means of support is provided through the voluntary conservation programs established in the farm bill. These conservation programs are increasingly called upon to support best management practices to meet federal environmental requirements; however, these programs are being considered for funding reductions. Other conservation efforts, such as conservation compliance on highly erodible lands and wetlands compliance, may be viewed as restrictive. Potential changes in commodity programs could reduce the effectiveness of compliance programs. This has caused some to advocate for reestablishing compliance ties to other farm programs, such as crop insurance.

Date of Report: November 21, 2011
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