By Matthew Ehrhart, PA Executive Director, Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Since 1965, Congress has re-evaluated federal farm programs every five years or so. Literally hundreds of billions of public tax dollars are at stake. The normal process involves multiple hearings, draft bills, open committee consideration, public debate by the House and Senate, dozens of amendments, and all the other elements of a full legislative process.
This year, things are different. By tomorrow, House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders will submit a “complete legislative package” to the Congressional “Supercommittee” for inclusion in whatever massive bill it must produce before Thanksgiving. The Supercommittee has extraordinary powers. Once it finishes its bill, the rest of Congress cannot amend it but can only decide to pass or reject it. If Congress passes the bill and the President signs it, it becomes the law of the land.
This abbreviated approach to the federal Farm Bill, while perhaps necessary in the current context, does short-circuit the detailed and thorough conversations that are typically part of the reauthorization process. It has become imperative that stakeholders, those with influence in conservation, agricultural commodities and insurance, and nutrition programs, are aware of the truncated process and weigh-in with Congressional representatives.
Given the very serious federal budget situation, it is clear that a significant amount of funding will be cut from a wide array of current programs. One budget item within the federal Farm Bill that must not be cut, and should perhaps be expanded, is conservation funding.
The Farm Bill, through its conservation programs, is one of the largest and most critical water quality improvement programs in the nation. Oddly enough, this water quality component is also among the smallest of the Farm Bill funding programs.
The conservation programs provide significant support to Pennsylvania farmers, not only for their daily on-farm operations, but also in enabling them to meet state and federal clean water standards.
Of the many conservation programs, it is The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) which are focused on water quality and agricultural improvements.
They are also in jeopardy of being cut beyond what is equitable and sensible; at the very time we need them the most.
Pennsylvania farmers manage the vast majority of non-forested land in the Commonwealth, and their day-to-day decisions about tilling, pasturing, and planting have a huge impact on our environment.
Most Pennsylvania farmers want to do their part to meet clean water goals, and to their credit, many farmers have made substantial improvements on their farms, and in so doing, better protect their soil, and our air and
water, while producing the food we eat. Many farmers have implemented some very visible on-farm improvements such as streambank fencing, soil erosion controls, barnyard improvements, and planting trees along streams. The Farm Bill’s conservation programs provide financial assistance to farmers who contribute their own time and money to improve their farm through these, and other conservation efforts.
Farmers in Pennsylvania and across the region are more under the gun for water quality improvements than ever as they face the same economic difficulties as the rest of the nation. Farmers must meet Pennsylvania’s numerous conservation requirements. Congress must not, at this critical time, undermine the progress that farmers have made to date and jeopardize our clean water by cutting the very programs that enable farmers to implement these very effective conservation improvements.
We are confident that the agricultural community will do its part if Congress does theirs. Year after year, farmers here consistently apply for more conservation funding than is available. As of last month, Commonwealth farmers applied for over $100 million in conservation funding. Too many were turned away, as the budget for these programs was capped at $35 million. Ending or significantly cutting these funding levels now would further discourage Pennsylvania farmers who are trying to do the right thing while making ends meet. It would also be a step in the wrong direction toward Pennsylvania’s ability to comply with environmental and water quality standards and the cleanup plan that the Commonwealth has put into place.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation commends Senator Casey and Congressman Holden for their past support of conservation funding in the Farm Bill and urges them to stand firm with Congressman Thompson when it comes to Pennsylvania farmers and preserving these vital programs.