Across the divide from the challenging realities of regulating nonpoint source pollution and agriculture reside the natural resource conservation policies for farmers contained in the omnibus legislation commonly known as the farm bill. The suite of conservation programs tend to avoid the sharp-edged debate surrounding environmental regulation, as well as the harsh criticism aimed at their sibling policies for commodity supports in Title I of the farm bill. They are, however, related to the issue of environmental regulation of farming and part of the universe of policies that impact farming on the ground.
Farm conservation policy was born of the dramatic Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930’s, when the soils of the Great Plains darkened the skies over the U.S. Capitol during Hugh Hammond Bennett’s testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee about the need for legislation to conserve topsoil. Spurred to action by this unfolding disaster in the plains descending on the East Coast, Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act of 1935. This legislation established a national policy for the conservation of soil with the newly-named Soil Conservation Service at the helm. The law also eventually led to the creation of soil conservation districts in the states to help with land use planning.
A year later, the Supreme Court threw out a law providing commodity price support programs designed to help farmers survive the devastating Depression. The cornerstone of this law was a policy to manage commodity supplies by paying farmers to reduce planting and production; the Supreme Court found regulation of agricultural production to be outside the bounds of Congress’ authority as provided in the Constitution and declared the law unconstitutional. Still mired in the Great Depression, farm leaders searched for a solution. They settled on combining the production management concepts with soil conservation, passing the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936 a month after the Supreme Court decision. Soil conservation was considered well within Congressional authority to provide for the general welfare of the nation – likely an easier argument in light of the Dust Bowl. The new act provided payments to farmers who reduced their plantings of “soil-depleting” crops (which were also the same crops Congress had been attempting to support) and switched some acreage to crops such as grasses and legumes considered to conserve soils. Thus began in earnest the national effort to improve on-farm conservation, albeit significantly tied to the policies for increasing farm prices and income. The 1936 Act also provided assistance payments for implementing practices such as terraces and even planting cover crops.
World War II’s demands for increased production are seen as having resulted in a de-emphasis of conservation policies as the war needs shifted the national and farm policy focus. The post-war commodities markets brought significant farm surpluses and low prices; problems that kept much of the policy focus on supporting prices and farm incomes. In 1956, Congress returned to conservation policy as method for helping remove acreage from production, creating the Soil Bank as part of the Agricultural Act of 1956. The Soil Bank involved both an acreage reserve program that provided rental payments for reduced plantings of certain crops and a conservation reserve program that provided for a long-term land-retirement program, removing 29 million acres from production.
The Soil Bank programs continued through the surplus years of the late-1950’s and the 1960’s until strong international demand in the 1970’s pushed farm policy in a different direction, with USDA calling on farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow” to meet demand. While some conservation policies continued, they appear to have been minimalized and lacked clear focus even as a rising environmental movement succeeded in passing the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. In 1977, Congress passed the Soil and Water Resource Conservation Act requiring a comprehensive review of conservation programs to be used in the design of improved, new programs.
Expanded production in the 1970’s was followed by a collapse of prices and incomes in the 1980’s bringing about a second farm crisis as well as ushering in a renewed focus on conservation policies, particularly by an empowered environmental community. The Food Security Act of 1985 was the first farm bill with a specific title devoted to conservation programs and policies; it marks the clearest turning point in conservation policy and its relation to farm policy. The 1985 Farm Bill included the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in its current form and operation, but most notably it included conservation compliance requirements: to be eligible for commodity subsidies farmers had to comply with provisions known as swampbuster (addressing the draining of wetlands), sodbuster (addressing the plowing of native sod) and requirements conservation planning for any farming on Highly Erodible Land. All farm bills since 1985 have contained conservation titles and each has been written as amendments to that bill; conservation compliance has also remained a significant part of farm bill debates as evidenced by the Agricultural Act of 2014’s linking compliance to eligibility for crop insurance premium assistance.
In the wake of the direction established by the 1985 bill, legislation in the 1990’s expanded conservation programs. The 1990 Farm Bill (the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990) added the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP, providing easements to restore and maintain wetlands) and the Ag Water Quality Protection Program. The 1996 Farm Bill (the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act of 1996) extended CRP and created a new program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) which replaced the existing Agricultural Conservation program and consolidated other programs in an attempt to improve conservation outcomes, efficiency and effectiveness. The 1996 bill also created the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP).
Expansion of conservation policies continued in the 2000’s. The 2002 Farm Bill (the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act) reauthorized the existing suite of conservation programs, including EQIP with some revisions and a significant increase in funding to $1.3 billion per year. WRP, the Grasslands Reserve Program, a program to protect farmland from development and more were continued. The 2002 Farm Bill also added the Conservation Security Program (CSP) a new program with a different focus, seeking to achieve natural resource conservation within farm production, known as “working lands” conservation. CSP was modeled after green payment program proposals in that it provided farmers payments on a dollars-per-acre basis over a 5-year contract to adopt, maintain and improve conservation across their entire farm, as opposed to cost-share assistance on specific conservation practices. Finally, the 2002 Farm Bill capped the amount of acres that could be enrolled in CRP at 39.2 million acres.
Following in its footsteps, the 2008 Farm Bill (the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008) maintained a significant focus on conservation policy by continuing the general suite of conservation programs. The Conservation Security Program was revised in the wake of significant problems in its implementation by USDA and renamed the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). It maintains the working lands, operation-wide focus on conservation but is given operational adjustments to improve its effectiveness, as well as substantial, long-term funding and a charge to add over 12 million acres to the program each fiscal year. By comparison, the CRP acreage cap was lowered to 32 million acres and changes were made to the program to permit enrollment of farmable wetlands, buffers and other similar practices that depart from the traditional reserve concept, moving in the direction of working lands conservation.
The Agricultural Act of 2014 continued the above-discussed trend even in the face of demands for reducing spending across farm bill programs. In general, conservation title spending was reduced by an estimated $4 billion over the 10-year budget window — a reduction that was substantially less than the reduction to Title I subsidy programs and even less than for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Moreover, spending on conservation is now estimated to surpass spending on Title I subsidies; an historic shift in policy priorities. Much of the savings in the 2014 Farm Bill comes from a reduction in the acreage cap for CRP, moving the cap down from 32 million acres to 27.5 million, 26 million, 25 million and finally to 24 million acres over the five fiscal years of the bill. Other major changes involved consolidating the easement programs (Wetland Reserve, Grasslands Reserve and Farmland Protection) into a single Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. CSP is further revised to improve on-the-ground operation and spending for it is reduced. Finally, a host of programs and authorities were consolidated into a single program — the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). RCPP is notable in that it takes further the concept of working lands, bringing in private partners and private resources to achieve conservation on a large-scale, regional basis across multiple programs and coordinated among numerous producers. The program also seeks comprehensive assessment of the impacts of conservation practices on the natural resources it seeks to conserve.
Farm-based, natural resource conservation policy effectively began as a product of the twin disasters of the 1930’s: the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. For much of its history its existence was closely linked to, if not dependent upon, commodity support policies, often as a tool to help manage or control production and supplies. The 1985 Farm Bill sent conservation policy off on a different trajectory. Over the last 20 years the policy focus has rapidly shifted away from land retirement towards conservation as a part of production — working lands conservation to address resource concerns by building on stewardship principles at the heart of responsible farming.