COLUMBUS, Ohio - With a 10 percent increase in funding over the 1996 Farm Bill, introduction of new programs and 21 percent of the 2002 Farm Bill's budget devoted to conservation, improvements to water quality, wildlife habitats and the environment appears to be increasing in importance.
But how farmers and local, state and federal agricultural and natural resources agencies plan to spend that $17.1 billion over the next five years may determine just how the public views the increased funding and justification behind the programs.
"With the exception of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) I don't think that in Ohio we've been able to show the full benefits from the funds that were provided in the 1996 Farm Bill," said Brent Sohngen, an Ohio State University Extension agricultural economist. "There are huge amounts of evidence out there saying that CRP has provided big dollar benefits for recreation, wildlife habitats, open forage space, but water quality benefits of other programs haven't been shown yet or at least are not clearly evident." Sohngen said that farmers and agencies should take a strong stand on measuring environmental programs and show how improvements to agriculture are related to improvements in water quality.
"The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) increasingly points to agriculture as one of the leading causes of impairment, and, clearly, doing things to improve water quality will help in that regard. It would be nice to see the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and local and state agencies use this money to target water quality issues that have been identified in Ohio," he said. "People will be asking, 'Show us what the benefits are,' and it will be incumbent on agriculture to do that. Even if it's not 'across the board' improvements, it will still go a long way to show that this was money worth spending." Congress made several changes to the 2002 Farm Bill that involves both an increase in funds for existing programs and the introduction of new programs to favor conservation on retired farmland, as well as working farms.
The biggest funding increase involved contributing $9 billion, more than half of the conservation budget, to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP. The purpose of the program is to provide technical assistance, cost sharing and incentive payments to livestock and crop producers interested in making conservation improvements.
"While this farm bill eliminates the targeting that had been part of EQIP since 1996, the funding increase represents a dramatic increase in the scope of EQIP," said Sohngen. "I think part of that increase is because the program has shown some success. Plus, Congress wants to improve agricultural practices and programs like EQIP can build on that." The introduction of a new program, Conservation Security Program, is also meant to improve the environment through the improvements of agricultural practices. Where in the past, most of the conservation budget was spent on retiring land, more than 60 percent of the 2002 Farm Bill conservation budget is devoted to environmental management on working farms.
Sohngen said one purpose of the new program is to reward farmers who have been practicing conservation techniques but have never received any government payments for their efforts.
"These farmers already have conservation practices in place and are doing good stuff, but never got a dime for their work. The question was always, 'How do we pay people for doing the right thing if they've already been doing it,' and this program looks like it is the response to that," said Sohngen.
Land retirement programs, like CRP and WRP (Wetland Reserve Program), have been expanded under the 2002 Farm Bill. The total number of acres that can be enrolled in the programs has increased nearly 11 percent, with the majority of the increase devoted to wetland restoration under WRP.
The Farmland Protection Program (FPP), which helps keep productive farmland in agricultural use, will also see a major funding increase of nearly $1 billion over a 10-year period - an increase of nearly 20-fold over the funds provided in the 1996 Farm Bill.
With the many changes to the current Farm Bill that lean towards more spending, Sohngen said the main theme is the importance for the agricultural community to show it can use the money wisely. Funding for the Conservation Title of the 2002 Farm Bill is expected to swell to $38.6 billion over the next 10 years, an overall increase in spending by 80 percent.
"Conservation now and beyond the next five years, I think, will continue to be one of the leading justifications for subsidies. I can't help but see it growing in importance because I don't see the problems immediately going away," he said. "Just look at Ohio. Our goal under the Clean Water Act was to have 75 percent of Ohio's streams meet Clean Water Act standards by 2000. Today, in 2002, we are only at 57 percent. It's important for agriculture to do something about that." For more information on the 2002 Farm Bill, log on to http://www.usda.gov/farmbill/.