An Interview about Agriculture and Conservation in the Next Farm Bill

GrassIn 2018, the Farm Bill will be up for renewal. It will shape the future of federal conservation finance. The bill, initially enacted in 1933, is the defining legislation on agricultural law in the United States. A number of organizations, including Environmental Defense Fund, actively work to find ways to maximize environmental gains that can be made through its policies.

During this interview, Callie Eideberg, senior policy manager of the Ecosystems and Sustainable Agriculture program at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), discussed conservation in the Farm Bill. She reviewed current major initiatives and growth areas that will become important as the bill approaches renewal next year.

CFN: Can you briefly explain when the next iteration of the Farm Bill will go through?

Eideberg: The current Farm Bill was passed in February 2014. Each Farm Bill has a five-year life cycle, so the current Farm Bill will expire in September 2018. The House and Senate members – specifically, the members that sit on the House and Senate agriculture committees – are already starting the process to prepare. The intent is that they will have a bill ready before the current one expires.

They are going through the process now to hold hearings and gather ideas. [They will also] hear from groups like us and directly from farmers about what’s working and what’s not working on a whole variety of issues.

CFN: What major conservation elements do you expect will be included in or excluded from the next iteration?

Eideberg: The conservation comes in its own chapter title, Title 2. I don’t foresee a large shakeup of programs. Many of the conservation programs have been around for a while. They’ve been tweaked and they are in pretty good places. You can always continue to make improvements, but I don’t see any major changes happening.

One of the bigger sticking points for this whole Farm Bill will be the amount of money members of Congress have to spend. It’s either going to be a stagnant amount of money or a lower amount than before.

CFN: Are there any new growth areas that are being talked about for the conservation parts of the bill?

Eideberg: There are two things that EDF is looking at. Generally, we and many of those associated with the Conservation Finance Network recognize that in order to meet demand out there, you are going to have to really scale up involvement and adoption across the board.

The federal programs in the Farm Bill, the conservation programs, are never going to get you there. They are approximately $6 billion a year and they are never going to get you to large, coordinated, landscape-scale adoption to meet environmental needs.

So how else do you get there?

A huge area for growth would be a recognition on the part of the members of Congress that we really need to take a different approach to conserving ecosystems and seeking environmental benefits.

For EDF, that means bringing in the private sector in a meaningful way, creating a system that not only incentivizes private action on the part of a farmer or producer through federal programs [but shows it is] in their own financial interest to act instead of waiting for the government to pay them to do something. [It would create] a financial incentive for a third-party private-sector actor to come in and make it financially beneficial to get conservation practices and results on the ground. So that scaling up is really big.

A second growth area that would be major in this Farm Bill would be recognizing and implementing an actual way to quantify results from federal conservation programs.

Right now, the federal conservation programs measure acres, contracts, and dollars, but they don’t actually measure the environmental benefits produced when those practices go into a farm.

Getting the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make that change, directing them to do that, and helping them do it right, would be big.

Not only would we have really good, measurable results, but then you’d have the opportunity to monetize that. Once you measure something, you can monetize it, and then you can sell it, create demand and scale up.

So those would be two big steps forward.

GrassCFN: Do you expect that these areas will be part of the next iteration of the bill?

Eideberg: I think that there will be steps towards these, definitely. One of the great things about the Farm Bill is that it comes up every five years, and you have to redo it every five years. We don’t usually see huge, sweeping changes in every Farm Bill. You don’t see these big sweeping changes, you see incremental changes. So, I would expect to see some strong incremental changes.

CFN: Are there any other specific policies in the Farm Bill that would be interesting for the conservation finance community to think about?

Eideberg: I will flag one other program that will come up in the Farm Bill. It’s not a major change because it already exists. It’s called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).

It was written in the 2014 bill specifically designed to bring in the private sector to leverage federal and private-sector dollars and to basically double the federal investment on the ground.

So that program had really good intentions and has done a lot of good work in the last couple of years, but I think the first iteration in 2014 could be updated to a 2.0.

There are going to be folks looking to make it easier and much more effective on the ground.

If the intent is to bring in more private sector partners and players, whether they be folks in the Conservation Finance Network, Ohio Corn Growers, or General Mills, then those three groups don’t have experience in USDA conservation programs.

Let’s make this a simple, easily accessible program both to apply to and implement on the ground so that we can take advantage of these new ideas and innovations to get more conservation programs out there.

CFN: How would you compare the CIG program and the RCPP program than the other in terms of their effect on the ground?

Eideberg: We would really like to see some more flexibility in there from the RCPP programs. This would allow some of those dollars to be used for things that maybe the agency doesn’t have the authority to do right now.

You need to try new things. Right now, if the agency doesn’t have the authority to do it through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) or through the easements program, then it can’t spend its money, so we’d like some flexibility there. But it’s a perfect opportunity for the private sector to get involved.

CFN: What role do you feel that individuals and organizations have in influencing what will happen to the conservation measures of the next iteration of the Farm Bill?

Eideberg: So, members of Congress and the Senate are elected by constituents. And constituents really always have the loudest voices. I say that coming from a couple congressional offices where we really sat there and counted the number of calls we got on a big issue. That often would sway the member’s vote.

CFN: Do you feel that there is anything else that would be of interest to the Conservation Finance Network in general about the Farm Bill?

Eideberg: I don’t think you can emphasize enough the importance of individual voices in this. My experience on Capitol Hill is that members and their staff really have no idea that this type of work is going on.

I’ve literally had conversations with people who have said they had no idea what I was talking about. And these are people who specialize in conservation. They have no idea what the private sector is doing.

So, I think just talking about this – sharing stories, experiences, projects, successes, and even failures with officials, staff or members in influential places – is going to be really helpful.

Note: The comments about Conservation Finance Network in this interview have not been edited. CFN has received funding from the USDA.

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