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Conservation program spending levels off but continues shift to Working Land Programs

Friday, May 4, 2018

USDA agricultural conservation programs provide technical and financial assistance to farmers who adopt and maintain practices that conserve resources or enhance environmental quality. Although USDA implements more than a dozen individual conservation programs, nearly all assistance is channeled through six: the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and the Resource Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). EQIP, CSP, and CTA are often referred to as “Working Land Programs” because they focus primarily on supporting conservation on land in agricultural production (crops or grazing). The 2014 Farm Act continued to emphasize working land conservation. Between 2012 and 2017, combined funding for Working Land Programs accounted for more than 50 percent of spending in USDA conservation programs. This emphasis reflects a long-term trend—begun under the 2002 Farm Act—that increased annual spending in Working Land Programs. In 2017 dollars (to adjust for inflation), this spending increased from roughly $1 billion under the 1996 Farm Act to more than $3 billion under the 2014 Act. This chart updates data found in the May 2014 Amber Waves feature, "2014 Farm Act Continues Most Previous Trends In Conservation."

USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program continues expansion of financial assistance for cover crops

Monday, April 23, 2018

USDA offers financial assistance to farmers for implementing a wide range of conservation practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Programs (EQIP). Two of the most popular EQIP practices for addressing soil-related resource concerns are no-till (or strip-till row crop planting) and cover crops. Farmers practicing no-till plant crops without using any sort of plow to turn residue from the prior crop into the soil. Cover crops (such as clover, field peas, and annual ryegrass) are typically grown over the winter, between plantings of commodity crops. Planting a cover crop can improve soil health, reduce erosion, and reduce nutrient pollution to lakes, streams, and rivers. Between 2005 and 2016, USDA funding for cover crops in EQIP increased from about $5 million to more than $90 million in nominal terms. Over this same period, funding for no-till declined, in part due to increasing adoption of no-till by farmers even without payment. The larger total annual obligations for cover crops in more recent years partly reflects the higher per-acre costs of implementing cover crops. This may include seed costs and the cost of removing the cover crop. This chart updates data found in the September 2016 Amber Waves feature, “An Economic Perspective on Soil Health.”

Compliance incentives under the 2014 Farm Act would be lower without link to crop insurance premium subsidy

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

To be eligible for most U.S. farm program benefits, participating farmers must apply soil conservation systems on cropland that is particularly vulnerable to soil erosion. The 2014 Farm Act re-linked crop insurance premium subsidies to this provision, known as Highly Erodible Land Compliance (HELC), for the first time since 1996. These premium subsidies account for a significant share of Compliance incentives—typically between 30 and 40 percent, depending on crop prices. The 2014 Act also included major changes in other Compliance-linked programs, including the elimination of Direct Payments, a large program under the 2008 Farm Act. On individual farms, Compliance-linked benefits could be higher or lower than they would have been under a continuation of the 2008 Act. Under the 2014 Act (blue bars), ERS researchers estimated that less than 10 million acres are on farms that would have experienced a 50-percent or larger decline in Compliance incentives between the two Farm Acts given crop prices similar to 2010 levels. If premium subsidies were not subject to Compliance (green bars), more than 40 million acres of cropland in HEL fields would be on farms where Compliance incentives would decline by 50 percent or more. This chart appears in the July 2017 Amber Waves feature, "Conservation Compliance in the Crop Insurance Era."

Declines in pollinator forage suitability concentrated in the Midwest

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

About one-third of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators like bees. Managed honeybees in the United States alone provide over $350 million worth of pollination services each year. Pollinators rely on the land to provide forage, the pollen and nectar of flowering plants that pollinators feed on to survive. If forage is inadequate, pollinator health may be poor. ERS developed a forage suitability index (FSI) to examine how broad trends in land use have affected the availability of forage for pollinators. Findings show the national average FSI increased by about 2 percent from 1982 to 2002, due in part to the introduction of USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in 1986. The mix of species farmers agree to plant on CRP land often improves pollinator forage. However, the national average FSI plateaued between 2002 and 2012. The FSI had a greater-than-average decline in North Dakota and South Dakota—the summer foraging grounds for many managed honeybee colonies. Decreases in CRP acreage and increases in soybean acreage, which provide poor forage for pollinators, helped drive this decline. This chart appears in the July 2017 Amber Waves finding, "Declines in Pollinator Forage Suitability Were Concentrated in the Midwest, the Over-Summering Grounds for Many Honeybees."

Conservation Compliance links crop insurance premium subsidies to soil conservation

Friday, September 15, 2017

Most U.S. agricultural programs that provide payments to farmers require participating farmers to apply soil conservation systems on cropland that is particularly vulnerable to soil erosion. ERS research shows that this provision, Highly Erodible Land Compliance (HELC), is effective in reducing soil erosion when the farm program benefits that could be lost due to noncompliance exceed the cost of meeting conservation requirements. Under the 2014 Farm Act, some programs previously linked to HELC were eliminated, while new ones were created. In addition, crop insurance premium subsidies were re-linked to HELC for first time since 1996. Twenty-five million acres of highly erodible cropland are estimated to be in farms with relatively strong Compliance incentives (rightmost bars) under the Act. Without premium subsidies, farms with this level of HELC incentive would include only 14 million acres of highly erodible cropland. By comparison, farms with relatively weak Compliance incentives (the second and third sets of bars) include an estimated 27 million acres of highly erodible cropland. Without premium subsidies, farms with this level of HELC incentive would include an estimated 45 million acres of highly erodible cropland. A version of this chart appears in the ERS report, Conservation Compliance: How Farmer Incentives Are Changing in the Crop Insurance Era, released July 2017.

Almond producers accounted for 80 percent—over $280 million—of pollination service fees in 2016

Monday, August 7, 2017

Farmers growing crops that depend on pollination can rely on wild pollinators in the area or pay beekeepers to provide honeybees or other managed bees, such as the blue orchard bee. In 2016, U.S. farmers paid $354 million for pollination services. Producers of almonds alone accounted for 80 percent of that amount—over $280 million. By comparison, producers of apples and blueberries paid about $10 million each. Pollination services helped support the production of these crops—which, in 2016, had a total production value of about $5.2 billion for almonds, $3.5 billion for apples, and $720 million for blueberries. Between 2007 and 2016, the production value of almonds grew by 85 percent in real terms, while the production value of both apples and blueberries grew by about 15 percent. Over the same period, the number of honey-producing colonies grew by 14 percent. This chart uses data found in the ERS report Land Use, Land Cover, and Pollinator Health: A Review and Trend Analysis, released June 2017.

Conservation Compliance has significantly reduced water erosion on fields designated as highly erodible

Friday, July 28, 2017

Conservation Compliance ties eligibility for most Federal farm program benefits to soil and wetland conservation requirements. Under Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC), for example, farmers who grow crops in fields designated as highly erodible land (HEL) must apply an approved conservation system—one or more practices that work together to reduce soil erosion. ERS researchers used a statistical model to compare water (rainfall) erosion on cropland in HEL fields to similar cropland not in HEL fields. Between 1982 and 1997, soil erosion reductions were significantly larger in HEL fields (39 percent, or 6.6 tons per acre) than in those not designated as HEL fields (24 percent, or 3.9 tons per acre). The difference—about 2.7 tons per acre—is statistically different from zero, suggesting that HELC did make a significant difference in soil erosion reduction. During 1997-2012, after the initial implementation of HELC was complete, ERS analysis finds that these soil conservation gains were maintained. This chart appears in the July 2017 Amber Waves feature, "Conservation Compliance in the Crop Insurance Era."

To promote soil health, USDA’s funding for cover crops increased ten-fold between 2005 and 2013

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Farmers can receive Federal financial assistance for implementing a wide range of conservation practices from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Adopting no-till and planting cover crops are two common agricultural practices that can improve soil health. Farmers receiving payments for no-till agree to plant crops without using any sort of plow to turn residue from the prior crop into the soil. Those receiving payments for cover crops plant certain crops (such as clover, field peas, and annual ryegrass) or a mixture of crops to maintain cover and add organic matter. Cover crops are usually grown over the winter, between plantings of commodity crops. From 2005 to 2013, USDA funding for cover crops in EQIP increased ten-fold—from about $5 million to more than $50 million in nominal terms. Over this same period, funding for no-till adoption declined. This shift in focus can be attributed to a variety of factors, such as increasing adoption of no-till by farmers even without payment and improving availability of cover crop seeds and educational materials. This chart appears in the September 2016 Amber Waves feature, “An Economic Perspective on Soil Health.”

Some manure nutrients produced in the Chesapeake Bay watershed can be captured for later use

Friday, September 30, 2016

In 2010, to help meet water quality goals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted a limit on the amount of pollutants that the Chesapeake Bay can receive. Nitrogen and phosphorus, in particular, can lead to adverse effects on public health, recreation, and ecosystems when present in excess amounts. The EPA estimates that applications of manure contribute 15 percent of nitrogen and 37 percent of phosphorus loadings to the Bay. Furthermore, ERS estimates that animal feeding operations (AFOs), which raise animals in confinement, account for 88 percent of manure nitrogen and 84 percent of manure phosphorus generation in that watershed. ERS also estimates that about a third of nitrogen and half of phosphorus produced at AFOs can be recovered for later use. That adds to about 234 million pounds of nitrogen and 106 million pounds of phosphorus recovered. These nutrients can then be redistributed regionally to fertilize agricultural land, thereby lessening nutrient run-off problems in the Bay. The remaining nutrients cannot be recovered. Both nitrogen and phosphorus may be lost during collection, storage, and transportation; nitrogen may also volatize into the atmosphere. This chart is based on the ERS report Comparing Participation in Nutrient Trading by Livestock Operations to Crop Producers in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, released in September 2016.

Some conservation practices are more widely adopted than others

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The environmental effects of agricultural production, e.g., soil erosion and the loss of sediment, nutrients, and pesticides to water, can be mitigated using conservation practices. Some practices are more widely adopted than other practices; no conservation practice has been universally adopted by U.S. farmers. Variation in conservation practice adoption is due, at least in part, to variation in soil, climate, topography, crop/livestock mix, producer management skills, and financial risk aversion. These factors affect the onfarm cost and benefit of practice adoption. Presumably, farmers will adopt conservation practices only when the benefits exceed cost. Government programs can increase adoption rates by helping defray costs. The potential environmental gain also varies—ecosystem service benefits (such as improved water quality and enhanced wildlife habitat) depend both on the practice and on the location and physical characteristics of the land. This chart is based on data from ARMS Farm Financial and Crop Production Practices.

USDA conservation funding shifts from land retirement toward working land

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

USDA relies mainly on voluntary programs providing financial and technical support to encourage farmers to conserve natural resources and protect the environment. In inflation adjusted terms, USDA conservation program expenditures increased by roughly 70 percent between 1996 and 2012. Much of the increases in real spending over this period occurred in working land programs and agricultural easements. Working land programs provide assistance to farmers who install or maintain conservation practices (such as nutrient management, conservation tillage, and the use of field-edge filter strips) on land in crop production and grazing. Agricultural easements provide long-term protection for agricultural land and wetlands. The Conservation Reserve Program—which pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from production and encourages partial-field practices such as using grass waterways and riparian buffers—is still USDA’s largest conservation program, but has slowly ebbed in prominence. While real spending on USDA conservation programs rose under the 2002 Farm Act (2002-07) and the 2008 Farm Act (2008-13), the 2014 Farm Act reduced mandatory spending, and expenditures over 2014 and 2015 appear to be leveling off. This chart is found in the Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials data product on the ERS website.

Major crop producers apply most nitrogen fertilizer in the spring and after planting

Friday, April 22, 2016

Efficient nitrogen fertilizer applications closely coincide with plant needs to reduce the likelihood that nutrients are lost to the environment before they can be taken up by the crop. Fall nitrogen application occurs during the fall months before the crop is planted, spring application occurs in the spring months (before planting for spring-planted crops), and after-planting application occurs while the crop is growing. The most appropriate timing of nitrogen applications depends on the nutrient needs of the crop being grown. In general, applying nitrogen in the fall for a spring-planted crop leaves nitrogen vulnerable to runoff over a long period of time. Applying nitrogen after the crop is already growing, when nitrogen needs are highest, generally minimizes vulnerability to runoff and leaching. Cotton farmers applied a majority of nitrogen—59 percent—after planting. Winter wheat producers applied 45 percent of nitrogen after planting. Corn farmers applied 22 percent of nitrogen after planting, while spring wheat farmers applied 5 percent after planting. Farmers applied a significant share of nitrogen in the fall for corn (20 percent) and spring wheat (21 percent). Fall nitrogen application is high for winter wheat because it is planted in the fall. This chart is found in the ERS report, Conservation-Practice Adoption Rates Vary Widely by Crop and Region, December 2015.

Southern regions in the U.S. have the highest rates of cover crop adoption

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Cover crops are thought to play a role in improving soil health by keeping the soil “covered” when an economic crop is not growing. Cover crops reduce soil erosion, trap nitrogen and other nutrients, increase biomass, reduce weeds, loosen soil to reduce compaction, and improve water infiltration to store more rainfall. The 2010-11 Agricultural Resource Management Survey was the first USDA survey to ask respondents to report cover crop use (findings from the 2012 Agricultural Census—the most recent available—are similar). Approximately 4 percent of farmers adopted cover crops on some portion of their fields, accounting for 1.7 percent of total U.S. cropland (6.8 million acres) in 2010-11. Cover crop adoption was highest in the Southern Seaboard (5.7 percent) and lowest in the Heartland and Basin and Range (0.6 percent each). This distribution is likely due to the fact that cover crops are easiest to establish in warmer areas with longer growing seasons. Limited cover crop use overall, however, suggests that the benefits of cover crop adoption are being realized on few acres. This chart is from the ERS report, Conservation-Practice Adoption Rates Vary Widely by Crop and Region, December 2015.

While total acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) continues to decline, land in "continuous signup" steadily increases

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Agricultural Act of 2014 gradually reduces the cap on land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) from 32 million acres to 24 million acres by 2017. CRP acreage declined 34 percent since 2007, falling from 36.8 million acres to 24.2 million by April 2015. Environmental benefits may not be diminishing as quickly as the drop in enrolled acreage might suggest. While initially enrolling mainly whole fields or farms (through periodically announced general signups), CRP increasingly uses “continuous signup” (which has stricter eligibility requirements than general signup) to enroll high-priority parcels that often provide greater per-acre environmental benefits. Conservation practices on these acres include riparian buffers, filter strips, grassed waterways, and wetland restoration. Riparian buffers, for example, are vegetated areas that help shade and partially protect a stream from the impact of adjacent land uses by intercepting nutrients and other materials, and provide habitat and wildlife corridors. Enrollment under continuous signup increased by about 50 percent, from 3.8 million acres in 2007 to 5.7 million acres in 2014. A version of this chart is found on the ERS web page, Agricultural Act of 2014: Highlights and Implications (Conservation).

Maintaining and restoring wetlands could remove nitrogen cost effectively over much of the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River watersheds

Monday, June 1, 2015

Every year, agriculture contributes an estimated 60-80 percent of delivered nitrogen and 49-60 percent of delivered phosphorous in the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrogen in waters can cause rapid and dense growth of algae and aquatic plants, leading to degradation in water quality as found in the hypoxic zone of the Gulf of Mexico, where excess nutrients have depleted oxygen needed to support marine life. Nitrogen removal is one of the many benefits of wetlands. An ERS analysis found that on an annual basis, the amount of nitrogen removed per dollar spent to restore and preserve a new wetland ranged from 0.15 to 34 pounds within the area of study (the Upper Mississippi/Ohio River watershed), or a range of $0.03 to $7.00 per pound of nitrogen removed. Restoring and protecting wetlands in the very productive corn-producing areas of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio tends to be more cost effective than elsewhere in the study area. The study suggests that if nitrogen reduction was the only environmental goal, these corn-producing areas would be a good place to restore wetlands. Hydrologic conditions in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River watersheds are unique, so the cost effectiveness of wetlands elsewhere is uncertain. This map is found in the ERS report, Targeting Investments To Cost Effectively Restore and Protect Wetland Ecosystems: Some Economic Insights, ERR-183, February 2015.

Incentive payments often boost adoption of conservation practices

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Under the Agricultural Act of 2014, Congress provided an estimated $28 billion in mandatory 2014-18 funding for USDA conservation program payments that encourage farmers to adopt conservation practices. If farmers would have adopted the practice even without financial incentive, however, the practices are not “additional,” and the payments provide income for farmers without improving environmental quality. Some farmers have adopted specific conservation practices without receiving payments because doing so reduces production costs or preserves the long-term productivity of their farmland (e.g., conservation tillage). Many other farmers have not adopted conservation practices, presumably because the cost of doing so exceeds expected onfarm benefits, the value of which can vary based on many factors, including soil, climate, topography, crop/livestock mix, producer management skills, and risk aversion. Since the value of onfarm benefits can vary widely across practices and farms, identifying which farmers will adopt a conservation practice only if they receive a payment is not straightforward. Additionality tends to be high for practices that are expensive to install, have limited onfarm benefits, or onfarm benefits that accrue only in the distant future (e.g., soil conservation structures, buffer practices, and written nutrient management plans). Practices that can be profitable in the short term are more likely to be adopted without payment assistance and tend to be less additional (e.g., conservation tillage). Research indicates that the likelihood a payment will result in additional environmental benefit increases as the implementation cost of the conservation practice increases (such as soil conservation structures) and its impact on farm profitability declines. This chart is based on data from the ERS report, Additionality in U.S. Agricultural Conservation and Regulatory Offset Programs, ERR-170, July 2014.

Costs of restoring and preserving wetlands vary across the United States

Friday, April 10, 2015

USDA’s costs of restoring and preserving new wetlands across the contiguous United States range from about $170 to $6,100 per acre, with some of the lowest costs in western North Dakota and eastern Montana and the highest in major corn-producing areas and western Washington and Oregon. To analyze conservation program expenditures, ERS researchers generated county-level estimates of wetland costs for each of the major wetland regions as designated by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (outlined in black in the map), using primarily NRCS Wetland Reserve Program contract data. Variations in costs are driven by differences in land values and the complexity of restoring hydrology and wetland ecosystems. Information about how the costs of restoring and preserving wetlands vary spatially (together with the relative benefits) can inform wetland targeting policies within States/regions and across the U.S. This map is found in the ERS report, Targeting Investments to Cost Effectively Restore and Protect Wetland Ecosystems: Some Economic Insights, ERR-183, February 2015.

"No-till" practices are used on over half of major cropland acres

Friday, December 5, 2014

Soil health improves when farmers refrain from disturbing the soil. While no-till production systems are increasingly used on land in corn, soybeans, and wheat—the three largest U.S. crops by acreage—they are not necessarily used every year. Field-level data, collected through the Agricultural Resource Management Survey, show that farmers often rotate no-till with other tillage systems. Farmers growing wheat (in 2009), corn (in 2010), and soybeans (in 2012) were asked about no-till use in the survey year and the 3 previous years. No-till was used continuously over the 4-year period on 21 percent of surveyed acres. On almost half of the cropland surveyed, farmers did not use no-till. Some of the benefit of using no-till, including higher organic matter and greater carbon sequestration, is realized only if no-till is applied continuously over a number of years. Nonetheless, because tilling the soil can help control weeds and pests, some farmers rotate tillage practices much like they rotate crops. This chart is drawn from data reported in ARMS Farm Financial and Crop Production Practices, updated in December 2014.

Environmental vulnerability varies across the Chesapeake Bay watershed

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Chesapeake Bay is North America’s largest and most biologically diverse estuary, and its watershed covers 64,000 square miles across 6 States (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established limits for nutrient and sedi­ment emissions from point (e.g., wastewater treatment plants) and nonpoint (e.g., agricultural runoff) sources to the Chesapeake Bay in the form of a total maximum daily load (TMDL). Agriculture is the largest single source of nutrient emissions in the watershed. About 19 percent of all cropped acres in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are critically undertreated, meaning that the management practices in place are inadequate for preventing significant losses of pollutants from these fields. Critically undertreated acres are not distributed among the four sub-basins in the same way as cropland. For example, the Susquehanna watershed contains 69 percent of critically undertreated acres but only 41 percent of cropland. Targeting conservation resources to highly vulnerable regions could improve the economic performance of environmental policies and programs. This chart displays data found in the ERS report, An Economic Assessment of Policy Options To Reduce Agricultural Pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay, ERR-166, June 2014.

Most U.S. corn acres at risk of nitrogen losses to the environment

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Corn is the most widely planted crop in the U.S. and the largest user of nitrogen fertilizer. By using this fertilizer, farmers can produce high crop yields profitably; however nitrogen is also a source of environmental degradation when it leaves the field through runoff or leaching or as a gas. When the best nitrogen management practices aren’t applied, the risk that excess nitrogen can move from cornfields to water resources or the atmosphere is increased. Nitrogen management practices that minimize environmental losses of nitrogen include applying only the amount of nitrogen needed for crop growth (agronomic rate), not applying nitrogen in the fall for a crop planted in the spring, and injecting or incorporating fertilizer into the soil rather than leaving it on top of the soil. In 2010, about 66 percent of all U.S. corn acres did not meet all three criteria. Nitrogen from the Corn Belt, Northern Plains, and Lake States (regions that together account for nearly 90 percent of U.S. corn acres) contribute to both the hypoxic (low oxygen) zone in the Gulf of Mexico and to algae blooms in the Great Lakes. This chart is based on data found in the ERS report, Nitrogen Management on U.S. Corn Acres, 2001-10, EB-20, November 2012.

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