November 13, 2023
The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, more commonly known as the Farm Bill, is an enormous bill spanning all aspects of food and farm policy – including important nutrition, research, organic, and wildlife programs. It also provides America’s largest investment in conservation on farms, ranches, and private lands. Farm Bill conservation programs, run through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), provide tools to enable farmers, ranchers and forest owners to steward land for future generations and improve water, wildlife habitat, soil, and the climate.
The current Farm Bill expired on September 30, threatening USDA’s ability to get farmers and ranchers the conservation resources they want and need. The good news is that funding will continue to flow to some of the bill’s conservation and nutrition programs. Farm Bill expirations are relatively common, so the expiration is not entirely unexpected and the worst effects won’t be felt immediately. In fact, every Farm Bill going back to 2002 expired before a new bill was passed.
The bad news: not all USDA programs will continue to receive funding. And if Congress is unable to get a new bill passed by the start of 2024, Farm Bill law reverts to New Deal-era laws that would have serious negative consequences for people across the country, whether they farm, work in conservation, or shop at a grocery store or farmer’s market.
It is vital that a new Farm Bill passes, or the current bill is extended, so that USDA conservation programs can continue to work for farmers, landowners, and families trying to put food on their table. Communities and wildlife across the U.S. depend on it.
What does expiration mean for USDA’s Conservation, Research, and Renewable Energy Programs?
Many of these programs will continue, in part thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and its historic $20 billion investment in climate-smart conservation. IRA extended several USDA programs to 2031, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) through Sept. 30th, 2031.
Conservation programs like these restore and enhance wetlands, create pollinator habitat, and provide technical assistance to help farmers and ranchers learn how they can adopt more sustainable practices. Some initiatives in Appalachia have protected the Eastern Hellbender, American Black Duck, and the Gopher Tortoise, among others. In the entire Appalachian region, these programs apply to over 4 million acres of land in the region, an area larger than Connecticut.
IRA also provided the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) over $2 billion in grants for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements for farmers, ranchers, and rural small business owners – and this program will continue despite Farm Bill expiration.
Programs that did not receive additional funding through IRA, like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – a critical program for wildlife habitat conservation – will not be able to take on new applications or do new work until they are reauthorized. CRP pays a reasonable rate to landowners to remove environmentally sensitive land from production to benefit wildlife, water, and soil health. The program has a long track record of success for wildlife conservation, with close to 27 million acres of land currently enrolled in the program including vital habitat for lesser prairie chicken, bobwhite quail, ducks, and countless other wildlife.
IRA also did not extend every initiative within conservation programs, such as the Watershed Rehabilitation Program, the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, and the Healthy Forest Restoration Program, among other important programs that help with wildlife support and invasive species control.
Thankfully, the 10 percent for wildlife funding requirement within EQIP was extended through 2031, a major victory for the wildlife community who fought for the carveout in the 2018 Farm Bill.
What does expiration mean for other USDA programs?
Some nutrition programs will continue uninterrupted. This includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which supports millions of Americans – including in Appalachia. In fact, a higher percentage of Appalachian, and Central Appalachian in particular, households receive SNAP benefits compared to the rest of the U.S. The Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP), which encourages the use of SNAP benefits at farmers markets, should also continue. And many of the bill’s local and regional food system programs will also not see an interruption in funds. But other Farm Bill programs related to organic agriculture and sustainable agriculture research will also lapse, including:
- The Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP)
- Specialty Crop Block Grants
- National Organic Certification Cost-Share
- Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) including
- Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program
- Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Grant Program
Other USDA programs that offer farm-to-food-bank assistance, and that support agricultural research are now paused, given the Bill’s expiration. The Congressional Research Service digs into Farm Bill expiration here.
What’s Congress going to do next?
The million-dollar question! The Senate and House are hard at work writing their versions of the Farm Bill. Once those are passed through each respective chamber, the House and Senate will conference to reconcile their versions of the bill, bring it back to each chamber to be passed, and then it will head to the President’s desk for his signature to become law. Currently, it’s unclear if the new Farm Bill will be passed before 2024, creating an opportunity to let lawmakers know about the importance of the Farm Bill’s conservation and nutrition programs for Appalachian communities. The next couple of months will be critical for the fate of the Farm Bill, and USDA conservation programs in general.
Some in Congress would like to move IRA’s $20 billion for climate-smart agriculture and conservation into priorities that would not benefit wildlife or the vast majority of farmers, ranchers, and private landowners. This is despite the fact a recent poll showed that nearly three-quarters of farmers across the country think there should be more conservation funding, not less. In 2023, farmers applied for more than twice as much IRA funding as USDA had available, continuing a troubling trend that has been going on for decades.
Please join National Wildlife Federation and ReImagine Appalachia in calling for a wildlife-friendly, bipartisan Farm Bill that meets the demand from farmers, ranchers, private landowners, and the communities they live in for strong, well-funded conservation programs. Let your elected officials know that you care about a wildlife-friendly Farm Bill by contacting your representative here.