Montana Voices: Misguided Farm Bill puts stewardship programs at risk

Unless the conference committee that will soon negotiate the 2018 Farm Bill acts decisively, the largest, most effective program for conservation agriculture could be gutted entirely.

At risk is the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which rewards farmers and ranchers for using practices that enhance the sustainability of agricultural landscapes. To earn these green payments, farmers take a whole-farm approach to conservation and adopt ecologically-sound practices. Montana’s congressional delegation must protect CSP in the final negotiations for the 2018 Farm Bill.

Farmers have flocked to take advantage of this common-sense approach since CSP began in 2002. Now, more than 46,000 producers and 70 million acres are enrolled across the nation. In Montana, over 1,200 farmers and ranchers  have enrolled 5 million acres, helping them stay on the land and protect vital natural resources by using proven conservation practices.

Through CSP, producers can better take care of the soil, develop wildlife and pollinator habitat, buy high-quality cover crop seeds, improve crop rotations, enhance grazing management, reduce pollution, and more. Intensifying or implementing these practices can be risky for producers. CSP helps to mitigate the risk by providing both technical expertise and funding.

In recent interviews, Montana producers enrolled in CSP told us that the program has become an important part of their overall farm planning, providing numerous benefits. For instance, as a cattle rancher explained, CSP “is a different strategy of rewarding and incentivising good management, which is an important long-term approach. It creates some income for people who are really making sure the grass is in good shape.”

Montana producers also told us that CSP gives them space to experiment with activities and trials that they may or may not have tried, allowing them to learn more about what works best on their land.

Similar to other Farm Bill programs, producers identified challenges like the lack of farmer involvement in program development, not enough flexibility in implementation, and the amount of paperwork required. Even so, producers stressed to us that CSP funding provides real benefits to their land and communities. Eliminating this program, as proposed, would be a huge disservice to those stewarding the state’s landscapes and wildlife. Instead, farmers and ranchers in the program should be called upon to provide feedback on how to make CSP stronger and more accessible.

The 2018 Farm Bill must include CSP so that producers can steward our agricultural heritage for future generations. Both the House and Senate passed their versions of the Farm Bill through their respective chambers in June 2018. Shockingly, the House bill eliminates CSP entirely.

While there is room for improvement, jettisoning the program altogether is ridiculously short-sighted. The House bill also further reduces the already small portion of funding devoted to conservation, cutting nearly $1 billion from the “conservation title,” moving those funds to other titles in the Farm Bill that have nothing to do with conservation. The House bill even allows huge animal feedlots to qualify for conservation funding! Given the clear benefits to Montana, we can’t figure out why Representative Gianforte voted in favor of this House bill.

The Senate bill, thankfully, takes a better approach, maintaining consistent funding in the conservation title as a whole and retaining CSP. It does, however, cut funding to CSP, reallocating it to other programs within the conservation title. Montana Senators Daines and Tester fought to protect CSP and conservation title funding in the Senate version. We hope they will continue to be strong advocates for Montana producers and conservation statewide.

Now the two chambers have to come together in a conference committee to reconcile these wildly different bills. While Montana’s delegation will not be a part of negotiations, they still have a vote on the final version. Montanans need to let their members of Congress know just how important CSP is to our working lands. Add your voice with thousands of others. Join us in calling for a Farm Bill that does not gut our critical conservation programs.

Montana’s food system, agricultural economy, and natural heritage are on the line.

Shelly Connor is the assistant director of the Wild Farm Alliance; Mary Ellis is a masters student in the University of Montana’s environmental studies program; Neva Hassanein is a board member with the Wild Farm Alliance. The Wild Farm Alliance is a national nonprofit working to promote a healthy, viable agriculture that protects and restores wild nature. To get involved and read more about interviews with Montana producers, follow this link