House Ag Committee discusses NRCS, FSA
WASHINGTON — The Subcommittee on Conservation, Research, and Biotechnology of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture conducted hearings for the 2023 Farm Bill with testimony from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency on May 23.
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jim Baird (R-Ind.), described the hearing as an opportunity for the members to discuss the implementation of the conservation programs in the 2018 Farm Bill and to consider their reauthorization for the 2023 Farm Bill.
“Our Farm Bill conservation programs and the conservation delivery system is a proven model and is critical for addressing the many natural resource concerns before farmers, ranchers and landowners,” Baird said.
Terry J. Cosby, Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA, said, “The 2018 Farm Bill made it clear that voluntary conservation programs are critical to the continued viability of production agriculture.”
NRCS administers the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Conservation Innovation Grants, and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
NRCS also certifies technical service providers who provide conservation assistance to producers.
Zach Ducheneaux, USDA Farm Service Agency administrator, shared FSA’s vision of strengthening and expanding access to their conservation programs.
“These programs play a vital role in improving producers’ economic viability while also giving them better tools to invest in the long-term health and sustainability of their land,” Ducheneaux said. FSA oversees the Conservation Reserve Program.
Baird pointed out, “The Inflation Reduction Act provided significant new funding for four conservation programs with climate-specific funding requirements in place, meaning they sequester carbon or directly reduce emissions.
“Despite the initial price tag of nearly $20 billion, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that the department will spend roughly $15.3 billion over the authorized period. This funding comes on top of the $3.1 billion the administration authorized through the Climate Smart Commodities Program, which was funded by the Commodity Credit Corporation and was created with no Congressional authority.
“I believe that as we conduct our review of the 2018 Farm Bill’s conservation title, we must examine this enormous influx in funding and how these dollars are being allocated by USDA,” Baird said.
U.S. House Committee on Agriculture Chairman, Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) said he hoped the agencies can effectively and efficiently prioritize this unprecedented increase. “We must have a bipartisan bicameral discussion on the best way to administer this funding,” he said.
Thompson said some funding is unrealistic and might be better used by spreading it over a realistic timeframe. He added, “We must remove the climate restrictions and let the locally-led model continue without limitations. Our system of conservation works because it is voluntary, incentive-based and programs locally led.” That is important because different regions have different local natural resources. He continued, “Second, we need to emphasize working lands. There is a reason why EQIP is the most popular and effective at getting conservation on the ground.”
Over-subscribed and TSP shortage
Ranking Member Abigail D. Spanberger (D-Va.) conveyed the results of her Farm Bill Summit in her district to hear feedback from the farmers on their conservation programs. The benefits were valuable, she said, but the challenges included enrollment experiences.
One farmer reported over a year waiting to enroll in EQIP due to it being oversubscribed. Plus, a shortage of Technical Service Providers left him waiting to attend his operation and develop the essential enrollment plan.
With Baird, Spanberger led the bipartisan bill, Increased TSP Access Act, which will help boost the number of TSPs to provide assistance to farmers and ranchers.
Thompson questioned Cosby about the status of the Sustains Act. The chairman said this Ag Committee passed it unanimously and it has become law.
Cosby responded, “We are seeing how it fits the work we are doing across the conservation family.” He added that they are seeing what authority they have to accept public money.
“We are working with our OCG attorneys to see how we can do this and hopefully we will report back to you in the near future,” Cosby said.
Thompson said, “We appreciate it. Don’t let the bureaucracy kill that. You have the authority. We put a great deal of work into this and expected it would be administrated according to the will of Congress.”
During the hearing, Spanberger conversed with NRCS Chief Cosby regarding his need for professionals that meet his soils requirement. Cosby explained that some colleges do not require the soils classes; the necessity for labs as well as funding problems have created this limitation.
Rep. Gabe Vasquez (D-N.M.) related uncertainties with communicating and coordinating with the local Conservation Districts’ delayed enrollment in the NRCS programs, and continuous delays will simply block enrollment.
“We’re turning the corner on delays,” Cosby said.
Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.) questioned solar placement on prime farmland. Cosby said NRCS has not taken a position, but mentioned some of their projects regarding erosion and hazardous materials.
An issue with an EQIP grant that reportedly could not begin until final approval concerned Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.). Cosby responded that there are options of advance payments that allow 90 days.
Rep. Brad Finstad (R-Minn.) called attention to situations where competition of land values can exceed Conservation Reserve Programs, and whether the incentives of CRP can give reasonable choices. Ducheneaux recognized there can be county-wide limits. In addition, he said they are working to refine the credit opportunities.
In response to Rep. Nikki Budzinski’s (D-Ill.) comment on insight for the next five years, Ducheneaux pointed to the access to opportunities in urban center initiatives, and their recent 70 projects transitioning climate smart practices.
On May 23, NRCS posted on their website, “NRCS delivering climate solutions through the Inflation Reduction Act,” which describes the $19.5 billion available in the oversubscribed programs from 2023 to 2027. New positions also were announced.
Need for action
During his extensive visits in the field, Thompson, said he hears from stakeholders that the Regional Conservation Partnership Program needs to be evaluated and improved to ensure the original principal of the programs continues to be fulfilled.
“We need to encourage innovative solutions through the conservation title,” Thompson said. “Agriculture has always relied on science and technology and innovation and we should encourage that throughout the Farm Bill. Whether that is through innovation such as precision agriculture or innovative ideas like soil health grants to the states, we need to think innovatively. We need to encourage working with the private sector and look to expand technical capacity where we can.
“We should encourage forest lands to be part of Title II and reforms to allow better management of our national forests. Finally, we need to look at what’s working and what needs improvement and ways to modernize of our programs.”