The carrot and the stick: US conservation programs

How our southern neighbours protect the environment

the united states has had farm conservation programs since 1935, but it wasn’t until 1985 that conservation began to evolve into the programs’ primary function. 

Before 1985, the real issue driving US conservation programs was a two-part effort to get payments to farmers and to remove land from production as a way of limiting output and boosting crop prices.

Paying farmers to control soil erosion was an easy case to make following the horrible erosion of the 1930’s Dust Bowl.

In a similar way, Americans today seem more willing to pay for farm programs if, in return, farmers help preserve the environment.  As a result, environmental groups have been gradually playing a larger role both in crafting US farm conservation programs and in passing the final farm bills.

The result is two-fold:  the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) now offers an array of programs that pay farmers for their environmental stewardship efforts, while more regulations (not necessarily run by USDA) require farmers to take specific environmental steps in their operations. 

Think of it as a “carrot and stick” approach.  The major “carrots” include the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).  Then there are about a dozen smaller programs with a more specific focus such as the Grassland Reserve Program, the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program.  

Cropland, pasture, prairie and rangeland, grassland and nonindustrial private forests are generally eligible to participate, as are all producers, regardless of the crop.  With the exception of CRP, the programs    target working lands and operate on a
cost-share basis, similar to portions of Ontario’s Environmental Farm Plan. 

the “carrots”
Established in 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is best known for paying farmers who convert highly erodible cropland from production to grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filter strips or riparian buffers. 

To participate, producers must file a bid, which USDA will evaluate based on both the cost of the proposed contract and the environmental benefits it would offer.  Winners are paid an annual rent for a 10 to 15 year contract. 

CRP payments can vary widely.  In 2010, the average payment per acre for new contracts was $46 nationally but $165 in Iowa, the state with the highest CRP payments.

Since 1990, CRP has protected at least 30 million acres each year. 

EQIP, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, was established in 1996 to provide technical and financial help (up to 75 percent of estimated costs) for producers who want to install or implement conservation practices on working lands.  It is open to farmers and livestock producers and targets environmental quality and agricultural production.

EQIP’s five priorities include water pollution (such as reducing groundwater contamination from farm runoff), conserving water resources, reducing air emissions, reducing soil erosion and promoting habitat for at-risk species.

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) was created in the 2008 farm bill to replace the earlier Conservation Security Program.  Since the final regulations were only released last June, the CSP is still a work in progress.

It is intended to address comprehensive resource concerns that go beyond the specifics of the other programs.  Though a nation-wide program, it is also customized at the state level to target locally important geographic areas or environmental concerns. 

As with CRP, producers apply for CSP contracts.  Applications go through a competitive ranking process, and USDA then develops five-year contracts with the highest scoring applicants.  Contract payments are capped at $40,000 per year.  

CSP emphasizes ongoing improvements, targeting both the management of  existing conservation efforts and implementing new efforts. In general, it requires higher resource and environmental standards than other federal programs for working lands.

The 2008 US farm bill authorized funds to support up to 13 million CSP acres annually. 

All told, the US spends from five to six billion dollars per year on conservation programs, of which about two-thirds go to CRP, EQIP and CSP, and the remaining third goes to the smaller programs.

the “sticks”
Then there are the “sticks” US farmers face – conservation requirements they must comply with by law.

For example, under the 1985 farm bill, farmers with any highly erodible land are required to develop and maintain a conservation plan.  If they fail to do so, they lose their eligibility for all USDA programs including commodity programs.  Similarly, a farmer who drains or fills a wetland loses USDA program eligibility.

Much of the most serious conservation enforcement comes from agencies other than USDA – most commonly from the Environmental Protection Agency and from state governments.  For example, efforts are under way to apply the Clean Water Act to runoff from farmland. Corn farmers, especially, are concerned this will lead to monitoring requirements and potentially restrictions on nutrient application for farmlands from the Chesapeake Bay to the Great Lakes and ultimately the entire Mississippi River Basin.

As one Missouri grower said recently, “Sooner or later, I expect I’ll have to account for my nitrogen use.”  •