Conservation Spending Seeks To Improve Environmental
Performance in Agriculture
Some farming practices can degrade natural resources and the
environment. Sediment, nutrient, and pesticide runoff and leaching,
for example, can impair water quality. Other practices can preserve
and enhance our natural heritage and provide substantial benefits
through careful management of agricultural land. Enhancing wildlife
habitat on agricultural land--for example, by providing nesting
material for migratory birds--can help increase wildlife
populations. USDA's conservation programs help agricultural
producers improve their environmental performance in many ways,
including soil quality, water quality, air quality, wildlife
habitat, and greenhouse gas emissions.
A Portfolio of Incentives
The USDA conservation effort relies mainly on voluntary
incentive programs to address natural resource issues. These
approaches can avoid the inherent difficulties in regulating
nonpoint sources of pollution and can minimize economic harm to
farmers by offering a range of incentives and assistance
- Land retirement programs generally remove land from
agricultural production for a long period (at least 10 years) or,
in some cases, permanently. Retired land can be planted to grass or
trees or restored to wetland condition.
- Working-land programs provide technical and financial
assistance to farmers who install or maintain conservation
practices on land in production. Common practices include nutrient
management, conservation tillage, field-edge filter strips, and
fences to exclude livestock from streams.
- Agricultural land preservation programs purchase rights to
certain land uses, such as housing or other development, to
maintain land in agricultural use.
- USDA provides, through Conservation Technical Assistance,
ongoing technical assistance to agricultural producers who seek to
improve the environmental performance of their farms.
Environmental compliance is a notable exception. Under highly
erodible land conservation (provisions other referred to as
"Sodbuster" for land not cropped before 1985 and "Conservation
Compliance" for land cropped before 1985) farmers who crop highly
erodible land must apply an approved soil conservation system or
risk losing nearly all agriculture-related farm program benefits,
including commodity, conservation, and disaster payments. Under
wetland conservation (often referred to as "Swampbuster"),
producers must refrain from draining wetlands or face the loss of
nearly all agriculture-related program benefits.
Conservation Spending Has Been Rising
Through USDA, the Federal Government invested more than $5.5
billion in voluntary agricultural conservation incentives in fiscal
year 2010. Land retirement captured the largest share of
conservation spending (46 percent in FY2010), although funding for
working-land programs was substantial (35 percent). Most of the
remaining expenditures were for Conservation Technical Assistance
(14 percent) and agricultural land preservation (5 percent).
|Funding for major conservation programs,
||Budget authority ($ Million)
|Land retirement programs
||Conservation Reserve Program
||Emergency Forest Conservation Reserve Program
||Voluntary Public Access
||Wetland Reserve Program
||Environmental Quality Incentives Program
||Agricultural Water Enhancement Program*
||Conservation Security Program**
||Conservation Stewardship Program*
||Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program
|Agricultural land preservation
||Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program***
||Grassland Reserve Program
||Healthy Forest Reserve Program
||Chesapeake Bay Watershed*
||Agricultural Management Program
|Conservation Technical Assistance
|All major conservation programs
Source: ERS analysis of Office of Budget and Program Analysis
*Created by the 2008 Farm Act.
**Discontinued by the 2008 Farm Act, although some funding
continues because multi-year contracts are still active.
*** Previously the Farmland Protection Program
Since the mid-1980s, USDA conservation program spending has been
on the rise. In 1986, with the beginning of the Conservation
Reserve Program (CRP), USDA conservation spending was dramatically
increased. For the next 17 years, until 2003, land retirement
dominated USDA conservation spending. During this period, about 90
percent of USDA conservation payments made directly to farmers went
for land retirement. Beginning in 2003, conservation spending took
another leap, largely because of a dramatic increase in funding for
working-land conservation programs. Most of the new money went to
the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the
Conservation Security Program (CSP; superseded by the Conservation
Stewardship Program). Between 2003 and 2010, working-land program
funding grew nearly tenfold.
With the growth of conservation programs over the past 25 years,
conservation spending for fiscal year 2010--expressed in constant
dollars--was higher than at any time since 1960. In 1960 at the
height of the Soil Bank program (a large land retirement program
initiated in 1956), conservation program funding was almost $5.8
billion in 2010 dollars.
It is not clear that conservation spending will continue to rise
in the future. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008
reduced the CRP acreage cap to 32 million acres, slowing spending
in that program. If the demand for major commodities (e.g., corn,
soybeans, and wheat) continues to be strong and market prices for
these commodities continue to be well above historic levels,
farmers may be unwilling to enroll land in CRP unless annual
payments are increased to match the profits from crop production.
Under such a scenario, CRP expenditures could jump or the program's
acreage could shrink.