NPR Story
6:00 am
Fri January 31, 2014

How The Farm Bill Funds Environmental Programs, Too

Originally published on Fri January 31, 2014 5:58 pm

The Farm Bill doesn't just put billions of dollars into agriculture programs. The Agricultural Act of 2014, as the bill is formally called, will also affect conservation of Northwest wildlife and natural resources.

The House has passed a version of the bill, and it's expected to go to the Senate Monday.

Inside this bill are some important conservation and energy programs. This year some were renewed and others were reduced or eliminated outright.The bill will dole out $956.4 billion in all. In total, $56 billion will go to conservation programs over the next 10 years.

Kevin Morse, with The Nature Conservancy in Washington state, said conservation is a key component of the farm bill. He said the amount of food we will need in the future could put a lot of pressure on natural resources.

“We’ve got to find a way to harmonize our food production system with our conservation system, so we can feed people. And so we still have clean water for people to drink, and clean water to support our fisheries industry and our recreational industries,” Morse said.

One way this farm bill aims to do that is by linking conservation measures to crop insurance. That means farmers must protect wetlands and areas that can easily erode, if they want to be eligible for crop insurance.

Morse, who owns a small farm in the Western Washington's Skagit Valley, said some of the most important make programs it easier for Pacific Northwest farmers to conserve. Those include easement land and wildlife habitat programs.

“We’ve got to make conservation good for business, if we want our farmers to stay viable. The farm bill provides those incentives to make that real,” Morse said.

Some of those conservation programs create habitat for endangered species like sage grouse in Eastern Washington and salmon in Puget Sound.

"What we've found in the Northwest in our work," Morse said, "it's the farmers' knowledge of the land, their ingenuity, that really helps us develop the solutions that work."

In Oregon, the state’s Department of Agriculture also uses some funds from the Farm Bill to help conserve land and protect streams. Washington has similar programs.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture's Stephanie Page said one important program helps wheat farmers in the northeastern part of the state, where the land is steep and can erode easily. Page said the farm bill pays farmers not to plant crops on environmentally sensitive landscape.

“It tries to compensate them for taking the cost of that land out of production,” she said.

But farmers won’t be able to put aside as many acres now because maximum acreage for the program shrunk under this farm bill, part of $6 billion in conservation funding cut from the previous farm bill. Most of those cuts came from consolidating programs, Nature Conservancy spokespeople said.

Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Grower's League, said these conservation programs are important to growers and the public.

“Public benefits are provided through those [programs]: stream protection, wildlife habitat, grazing for wildlife species. It’s not just a way to incentivize growers. It also generates a lot of public value,” Rowe said.

The farm bill also provides $881 million for energy programs, some of which are already in place in the Northwest.

The Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP, provides funding for farmers and rural businesses install renewable energy systems, like wind and solar. This year’s bill makes program funding mandatory instead of discretionary.

Mandatory funding increases certainty about projects for farmers, lenders, and contractors, said Clark Gilman, with rural renewable energy group Harvesting Clean Energy.

“That issue of certainty in funding is just about as important as the actually dollar amount,” Gilman said. “If it’s tentative, and you don’t know what month it’ll finally be approved, and then you have a very short window to request it, it’s hard to drag a farmer or rancher through a several month planning process for the project.”

ODA’s Page said people are pleased with the funding in the energy portion of the farm bill, especially with the addition of mandatory funding.

“They kind of know what they have to work with in terms of federal incentives,” Page said.

Another part of the farm bill will continue funding biomass and biorefinery projects, like several Northwest camelina projects and a poplar tree project.

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