The Trump Administration has proposed cutting $4.7 billion, or 21 percent, of the U.S. agriculture budget. If made, those cuts will come from discretionary spending, which includes on-farm conservation funding—as well as food safety, rural development, and international food aid.
The threat to conservation is especially worrisome to Roger Noonan, New Hampshire farmer and president of the New England Farmers Union. Like many farmers, Noonan relies on conservation dollars to run his diversified organic produce and livestock operation. When he put in a $10,000 high tunnel on his farm recently, conservation dollars covered $4,000.
There are several pots of federal money that are designated help pay farmers to be good environmental stewards of the land and water on their farm—or set the land aside entirely for wildlife. And those funds often play a key role in helping farmers stay in business.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also funds thousands of Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS) staff positions around the country. But the proposed budget would “reduce staffing in USDA’s Service Center Agencies to streamline county office operations, reflect reduced Rural Development workload, and encourage private sector conservation planning.”
“Conservation programs and NRCS staff are the number-one investment USDA makes in our region,” said Noonan. “NRCS staff walk around the farm with you, point out things farmers can do to address water quality, soil quality, forest quality. And then direct you to resources that you can use to make positive changes on the land.”
From promoting better soil health to conserving critical habitat or improving water quality, Jeremy Peters, head of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD), said “NRCS, in its local county offices, the service centers, are the entry point. The local staff help farmers and landowners in identifying conservation concerns and creating conservation plans to help farmers mitigate those concerns.”
In 2015, the program served more than 20 million acres of private land. According to USDA data, the agency made major NRCS investments in conservation-based crop rotations, cover-cropping systems, expanded habitat for pollinators, improved grass-based grazing systems, irrigation efficiency, and wetland restoration, among other practices.
Meeting this Week with Farm Constituents
This week, Peters is playing host to 150 agriculture conservation leaders traveling to Washington, D.C. The legislative “fly in” will convene a group of farmers, scientists, and local conservation specialists from around the country urging lawmakers to expand, not cut, funding for conservation staff at NRCS county offices all across the nation. And the pre-planned event couldn’t be more timely.
“The President’s budget is a wish list, a blueprint, but that doesn’t reflect congressional priorities,” said Peters. “We hope to see an increase in funding, actually, because these programs have proven to be successful.”
NACD members will have some rural congressional leaders on their side. “County offices are already understaffed, and further cuts would mean private organizations would be tasked with helping navigate farm programs,” Representative Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota), told Politico. “Again, it’s a general lack of understanding of what really takes place in rural America.”
Craig Cox, vice president of agriculture and natural resources for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), echoed Peterson’s sentiment: “USDA’s Technical Assistance Program funding has been cut and cut and cut over the years already. These are the professionals in the field, making conservation programs work.”
Like many budget provisions in the President’s proposal, the latest proposed cuts to USDA conservation program have been repeatedly pushed by the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. The group’s most recent budget blueprint sought to privatize, and de-fund, more than $700 million in annual spending for USDA’s Conservation Technical Assistance Program. Funding from the program is one of the biggest sources of support for local NRCS staff.
“Private landowners, not government, are the best stewards of property,” wrote Heritage. “If necessary, they can seek private solutions to conservation challenges. Federal taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize advice that private (and public) landowners should be paying for on their own.”
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) disagrees. In a statement, NSAC said, “While NRCS has a long history of partnering with non-governmental entities to help deliver conservation services, private-sector engagement in the area of conservation planning is very limited and could not possibly fill the gap left by NRCS if funding were cut significantly. Among other things, this proposal would greatly reduce farmers’ ability to access the farm bill conservation programs, since the staffing needed to deliver the programs would be decimated.”
Conservation as a Public Good
Back in New Hampshire, Roger Noonan is concerned about the proposed conservation cuts in a broader context of climate change. “We are now seeing major droughts and major flooding in the same year,” he says. “Hurricanes have been more frequent. It’s conservation practices—the health of soil, the resilience of our working lands—that get us through the hard times.”
Noonan sees conservation programs as an important piece of an overall funding system for public goods on private lands. They “are an investment that leverages private funding from the farmers themselves, as well as additional state and local dollars,” he says.
Peters agrees with Noonan’s explanation. “The cuts suggest a movement away from the traditional nexus of NRCS support along with state agencies, local conservation programs and local conservation districts,” he said. “These organizations provide the technical support, and cost-share payment to farmers, that has a huge multiplier effect on both local economies and for conservation results.” (Those benefits might explain why a South Dakota congressman has proposed a new conservation program focused on soil.)
EWG’s Cox said private-sector funding for conservation programs will likely be limited. And while he agreed that it could and should play a role, he added: “If we really wanted to get on top of agriculture’s environmental footprint, if we really wanted to maximize government investment in the conservation dollar, we would need to increase conservation technical assistance instead of privatizing it.”
Top photo: A representative of Pheasants Forever, an NRCS soil conservationist, and the farm owner discuss wildlife benefits of a grass filter strip on the Maggard farm in Jasper County, Iowa. (Photo credit: Lynn Betts for USDA)