Conservation programs continue to evolve

There’s a regular alphabet soup of conservation programs in the farm bill – CRP, EQIP, CSP, ACEP, WHIP, and on and on and on.

But when you talk about the conservation subsidies received by Hoosier farmers, the two programs that represent nearly all of the conservation dollars that come to this state are CRP (the Conservation Reserve Program) and EQIP (the Environmental Quality Incentives Program).

And realistically, CRP has always been the big one. From 1995 to 2014, 86 percent of conservation payments received by Indiana farmers came from the CRP program, said Shelby Swain, Indiana Farm Bureau associate policy analyst. Meanwhile 7 percent came from EQIP, which was the second most used conservation program.

But getting acres enrolled in CRP has become highly competitive. Among the factors is that the 2014 bill capped CRP enrollment nationwide at 24 million acres for fiscal years 2017 and 2018. The cap becomes even more important as commodity prices decline, making the idea of getting some sort of payment on marginal land more desirable. Other factors that are making the program competitive: inclusion of acreage in CRP that was eligible for the Grassland Reserve Program, and a high level of interest in re-enrolling expiring CRP contracts.

One answer, Swain said, is to raise the cap. Another alternative involves a factor known as the “Environmental Benefit Index,” or EBI. The most recent enrollment period was one of the most selective in CRP’s 30-year history, according to a USDA news release, with a record-high EBI cutoff and a record-low percentage of applications accepted. Therefore, an option that would keep the program within the current limits but limit enrollments is to increase the EBI threshold for new enrollments, Swain said.

Increasing the cap might be a hard sell.

“Conservation spending has been fairly flat over the last six years, but the change in emphasis has definitely been on more funding for working lands programs and less for retirement land programs,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, senior congressional relations director at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the 2014 farm bill emphasizes working land conservation largely through funding for EQIP and the Conservation Stewardship Program (or CSP). These programs and their predecessors accounted for 32 percent of spending during 2003-07 and just over 40 percent of spending during 2008-2013. However, combined funding for these programs is projected to account for more than 50 percent of mandatory spending on major conservation programs during 2014-18, ERS said.

Questions to consider:

1. What kinds of issues, if any, have you experienced using conservation programs?

2. What kinds of difficulties have you experienced in obtaining technical assistance in your conservation programs?

3. Are the technical requirements in conservation difficult to navigate? If so, how?