Tim Smith grows soybeans and corn using climate-friendly techniques.
Farmer Tim Smith Tim Smith grows soybeans and corn using climate-friendly techniques. ©: Joseph Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

Food & Water Stories

What the Farm Bill Means for Conservation

By Larry Clemens and Jennifer Conner Nelms

On December 20, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law. This is a momentous achievement for the conservation of private lands in the United States, supporting and funding policies that will help farmers, ranchers and forest owners become more sustainable and productive, while at the same time protecting lands and waters for the benefit of all.

As The Nature Conservancy's CEO Mark Tercek said in his statement after the bill’s passage out of the U.S. Senate, "…the new Farm Bill is a victory for the conservation and stewardship of the natural treasures that are America’s ranches, farms and forests. The health of these lands is critical to the success of private landowners, to our economy and to rural communities.”

What is the Farm Bill?

The Farm Bill is the most important legislation for conserving private lands in the United States. About half the land in the contiguous United States—nearly 900 million acres—is cropland, rangeland, forestland or pastureland that is eligible for programs funded by the Farm Bill.

The bill includes voluntary, incentive-based programs that help farmers and other landowners conserve their lands and their ways of life. These include initiatives to support science-driven, sustainable management of our farms, ranchlands, forests and grasslands.

The Farm Bill must be reauthorized every five years. Earlier this year, both the House and the Senate passed their own Farm Bill proposals. Negotiators worked for months but were unable to reach an agreement between these two bills, letting the previous Farm Bill expire on September 30, 2018.

Cover crops like the ones growing on this Texas farm help ensure healthy soil that captures and stores carbon.
The Cobb's Farm Cover crops like the ones growing on this Texas farm help ensure healthy soil that captures and stores carbon. © Ron Nichols/USDA-NRCS

More Funding, Better Policies for Conserving Lands and Waters

Priority conservation programs in the recently passed Farm Bill, which help support voluntary efforts by landowners to conserve a portion of their lands, received major boosts along with policy updates to increase their success. Specifically, it:

  • Fully funds the Farm Bill’s conservation title over 10 years at nearly $6 billion a year. Throughout the United States, TNC partners with farmers and ranchers on these programs that provide for sustainable agriculture and safeguard biodiversity at the same time, such as restoring wetlands and planting cover crops to increase soil health.
  • Increases funding for conservation easements to $450 million a year from $250 million year—meaning an additional $2 billion over the next 10 years—to farmers and ranchers to permanently set aside portions of their lands for the conservation of grasslands, wetlands, and forests. This program also helps us protect watersheds by paying farmers who restore wetlands on their property. These wetlands act as natural filters, giving downstream water users a cleaner source of fresh water. 
  • Triples direct funding for public-private partnership through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to $300 million a year from $100 million a year. RCPP supports bringing new partners and their funding to the conservation table to find local, innovative solutions to natural resource challenges including issues with water quality, flood prevention, resilience during drought, soil conservation and more.
  • Enhances program flexibility to help farmers access and use conservation programs more effectively and efficiently. Specialists from the private sector can now better help with conservation planning, conservation projects of significant value can now occur on large lands, and the application and enrollment processes for many conservation programs have been simplified.
  • Includes a new focus on soil health. Conservation program descriptions now include soil health and carbon sequestration as targeted outcomes. Conservation innovation programs are funded at $25 million per year, including a new trial that will provide incentives to producers to implement conservation practices that improve soil health and increase soil carbon levels. It will also establish protocols for measuring and testing soil carbon levels to evaluate gains in soil health.
Farmer Doug Thomas holds rice at a storage facility near Olivehurst, California.
Taking Flight Farmer Doug Thomas holds rice at a storage facility near Olivehurst, California. © Drew Kelly

Better Investment, Strategies for Forest Management

The Farm Bill also advances funding and policies to help with the management and care of our nation’s private forest lands at a time when they face growing threats like climate change and wildfires. Among other forestry benefits in the Farm Bill, it:

  • Extends the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration program, which encourages collaboration on science-based restoration of priority forest landscapes, and doubles the funding level to $80 million.
  • Creates a new Water Source Protection program funded up to $20 million that would carry out watershed protection and restoration projects on national forest lands through partnerships with end-water users.

No Rollbacks of Bedrock Environmental Laws

Just as notable as what’s in this Farm Bill is what is not in this Farm Bill. Many provisions included in earlier versions of the legislation would have undermined conservation efforts throughout the country, including rollbacks of foundational environmental protection laws like the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

Undermining these laws and their enforcement would do nothing to improve the productivity of our farms and forests and would only make it harder for those landowners and communities to find success in their fields, forests, watersheds and open spaces. We’re pleased these proposals were left out of the final bill.

Conserving Lands and Waters Together for Years to Come

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture works to implement the many different elements of the Farm Bill, we will continue to advocate for policies that strengthen the health and wellbeing of our lands and waters across the United States.

Larry Clemens is Director of North America’s Agriculture program and Jennifer Conner Nelms is a senior policy advisor for agriculture with the U.S. Government Relations program at The Nature Conservancy.