Conservation cuts sink in as 2023 farm bill looms

By Marc Heller | 10/23/2023 01:29 PM EDT

The biggest farmland conservation program has shrunk dramatically since the last farm bill, with no sign Congress will change direction.

Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Harkin, D- Iowa, gestures during a hearing on the human health impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Tuesday, June 15, 2010, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) during a June 2010 hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Evan Vucci/AP

A program created by the “father of modern conservation” to save American farmland is no longer the darling of the Congress or Agriculture Department.

The Conservation Stewardship Program, championed by former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) two decades ago, shrank fast due to budget cuts and a key structural change in the 2018 farm bill. Advocates say the reductions in the CSP — which grew to become USDA’s biggest conservation program at 72 million acres enrolled before the changes — amount to a retreat just as the nation needs to focus more heavily on farm practices that soften the blows of a changing climate.

Payments to farmers have plummeted by $2.6 billion since 2018, compared to the four-year period before that, according to an analysis by Jonathan Coppess, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois and former Democratic chief counsel on the Senate Agriculture Committee. In the program’s earlier years, the Congressional Budget Office projected payments to farmers would reach $2.5 billion annually by 2020. The actual amount that year was $429 million, or 17 percent of the projection, Coppess said in a poston the university’s farmdoc daily blog.


The reason: Congress in the 2018 farm bill switched the CSP from an acreage-based program to a dollar-based program with a funding cap. In addition, administrative changes at USDA forced farmers who wanted to renew their five-year contracts to compete with other applicants, rather than renewing automatically if they wished.

“It’s been badly, badly damaged,” said Ferd Hoefner, a farm policy consultant who focuses on conservation programs.

Harkin, who retired from the Senate in 2015, told E&E News the cuts and changes to the CSP have taken away from the mission he had in mind: to reward farmers for taking care of their land and to encourage them to keep doing so.

“You’d put the whole farm in this program,” Harkin said. “What’s happened? The Congress in its infinite wisdom decided that wasn’t important.”

The program’s never been a favorite of some environmental organizations such as the Environmental Working Group and The Nature Conservancy. Republican agriculture aides say the reason it’s been changed repeatedly is because the CSP was flawed from the start, costly and tilted too much toward farmers who already practice conservation without being paid to do so by the federal government.

And while the CSP isn’t likely to change in the 2023 farm bill, its history may inspire tweaks to another big program: the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take land out of production for wildlife habitat and other purposes.

Although the Conservation Stewardship Program has fallen, the situation could have been worse for its supporters — and better, perhaps, for those who wanted to bury it altogether.

In 2018, House Agriculture Committee Republicans proposed eliminating it in the farm bill, saying the CSP couldn’t be sustained and that combining it with another initiative — the Environmental Quality Incentives Program — would create a more flexible long-term program. In their view, still held by some policy advocates, the program was too complicated, inaccessible to beginning farmers and overly skewed to certain states and regions.

That proposal hit a wall in the Senate, and a compromise emerged. Whether the deal improved what remains of the CSP — as some of the programs critics say — or hobbled it is a point of disagreement.

Since then, the CSP has lost ground to EQIP, which also pays farmers for environmental improvements. But the programs are different — the CSP enrolls entire farms while EQIP targets specific practices such as manure management — and each plays varying roles from regions to region. The Upper Midwest has favored the CSP, while EQIP is more dominant in the East.

They also differ in another key respect. The CSP enrolls farmers who already have conservation practices in place across their farms, meaning so-called early adopters get some reward for their efforts and the program helps them maintain and expand on those practices. The program was designed to pay such farmers to continue and expand those measures, said Mark Halverson, Harkin’s top agriculture aide and chief of staff on Agriculture Committee during his chairmanship.

Some of the program’s critics, including Republican agriculture aides in Congress, say the CSP is elitist because it favors farmers who’ve already been able to make big financial commitments to large-scale conservation practices — the types of investments that are a struggle for small and beginning farmers. The Environmental Working Group doesn’t object to paying farmers for past practices but has complained that the CSP spends less than 1 percent of payments on practices USDA considers climate smart and urged for it to be revamped to target climate-related conservation.

Halverson said the program wasn’t written to exclude beginning farmers and isn’t elitist. “It just looks to me like a typical Washington argument,” he said. “There’s no truth to that. It’s just ridiculous.”

Rewarding farmers who’ve already make such investments is especially helpful, Hoefner said, as carbon markets unfold and policymakers argue that farmers who’ve been sequestering carbon for years should be compensated somehow.

The CSP struggles with one challenge that’s also true of other conservation programs: the demand from farmers far outstrips the money USDA has to offer. As many as 75 percent of applicants are already turned away, advocates say, a problem that’s magnified by some of the changes made in 2018.

“We know this is a problem. We know CSP has strong demand,” said Jesse Womack, a policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which continues to lobby for increased funding. “The data could not be clearer.”

The NSAC is watching how the lessons from the CSP may play out for the Conservation Reserve Program in the 2023 farm bill. That program is based on acreage, with a cap of 27 million acres that Congress.

Turning the CRP into a dollar-based program “would do real damage,” Womack said.

House Republican agriculture aides said Agriculture Chair Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) is considering changes to the CRP based on suggestions by various policy groups, with an aim of making the program as responsive to local needs as possible. He’s often told reporters that conservation programs should be locally driven rather than having practices dictated by Washington.

Lessons from Europe

The CSP, initially called the Conservation Security Program, was the brainchild of Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who served in the Senate from 1985 to 2015 and chaired the Agriculture Committee in the early 2000s. When he retired, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, dubbed him “the father of modern conservation” in a speech on the Senate floor.

She added, “He wrote the Conservation Stewardship Program that he created in 2002 and expanded on in 2008, and we protected it in the last farm bill.”

Harkin told E&E News the idea for the program hit him on a trip to France, England, Belgium and Denmark, when he noticed farms didn’t seem to struggle with pollution as much as those back home. “Their farms are just beautiful,” Harkin said.

Governments in Europe paid farmers for conservation practices, and those types of subsidies were allowed under World Trade Organization rules, Harkin said. “They paid farmers support prices for how they took care of their land,” he said.

Harkin started the initiative as the Conservation Security Program in 2002, then revised it as the Conservation Stewardship Program in the 2008 farm bill. It was more comprehensive than the EQIP program, he said. “What was EQIP? Big hog farms.”

From the start, Harkin met resistance in Congress, where farm programs compete for funding. Appropriators never gave the CSP the full amount authorized in the farm bill, and in 2014, lawmakers scaled back a key element of the program — a mandate to enroll an additional 13 million acres a year, making it 10 million acres instead.

By the time the 2018 farm bill was being crafted, the CSP faced an existential crisis. House Republicans passed a farm bill that would have eliminated the program, wrapping elements of it into EQIP. The Senate pushed back, including Stabenow and the Agriculture chair at the time, Pat Roberts of Kansas.

The CSP survived, but the compromise tilted conservation away from the program Stabenow had praised in her 2015 speech and toward EQIP. The requirement for 10 million additional acres a year vanished.

The effects of that move quickly became apparent. In 2018, the CSP had 72 million acres enrolled. Two years later, enrollment had fallen to about 68 million acres.

Coppess, the University of Illinois economist, said the changes put in place in 2018 have veered from the program’s purpose.

“After four authorizations and 20 years of operation, Chairman Harkin’s vision for rewarding farmers who conserve natural resources has been severely curtailed and many continue to be excluded,” Coppess wrote in a post entitled, “The Incredible Shrinking of the Conservation Stewardship Program.”

He added, “Congress has repeatedly chosen to shrink the CSP program to an incredible degree and with serious consequences.”