3/1/2014 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter
LANCASTER, Pa. — Conservation programs — Title 2 in the Agriculture Act of 2014 — have not garnered the headlines devoted to food stamps, crop subsidies and the fact that no Republican legislators joined President Barack Obama as he signed H.R. 2642 into law in a Michigan State University horse barn on Feb. 7.
Headlines were absent because conservation programs, while streamlined, were not politicized in the partisanship that resulted in a seven-year wrangle to pass a five-year Farm Bill.
Congress likes conservation programs, and so do farmers, according to State Conservationist Denise Coleman, who heads up the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Pennsylvania.
Coleman spoke Feb. 20 at an ag issues forum sponsored by the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry at the Lancaster Farm and Home Center. The forums are held six times a year and are attended mostly by people who serve farmers — lenders, consultants, lawyers, feed vendors and others.
NRCS staffers put a lot of work into the 2008 Farm Bill, Coleman said, and much of that effort carried over to the 2014 act.
One change for 2014 is a drop in the adjusted gross income limit on farmer eligibility for commodity and conservation program payments.
Any farmer whose income averages more than $900,000 over a three-year period will not be eligible for any commodity or conservation payments. The limit in the 2008 law was $1 million, and in the 2002 Farm Bill it was higher still.
The streamlined system for delivering conservation services to farmers is especially notable.
“Before, NRCS had to manage 23 programs,” Coleman said. “We are now down to 13 programs, but our procedures will be very much the same.”
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, remains in place, with a higher payment limit of $450,000 for a single practice.
The higher limit should make it easier for producers to fund big-ticket items like methane digesters, Coleman said.
The maximum contract length — the payback period — for EQIP-funded practices continues to be 10 years, although most EQIP contracts are completed in four years.
The Agricultural Management Assistance, or AMA, program is unchanged. Easement programs for farmland, wetlands, wildlife habitat and forest preserves will continue, although the paperwork and approval processes may change.
Farmers in special categories, primarily minorities, have had a place in past Farm Bills. The 2014 act is expanded to include preferential treatment for veterans by virtue of low income.In past years, programs to clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed have had a lock on conservation dollars from the federal treasury. The new Farm Bill has given the secretary of agriculture a mandate to spread the wealth around.
Money has been flowing to bay cleanup efforts for years, Coleman told the group, and advocates for other environmentally sensitive areas of the country would like more attention and money.
The Regional Conservation Partnership Program will involve all NRCS resources to some extent on state and national projects, and also for projects in as many as eight critical conservation areas.
The program’s budget directs 25 percent of the funds to state projects, 40 percent to national projects and 35 percent to critical conservation areas.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is still a critical area, Coleman said, and Pennsylvania’s NRCS staff is working on proposals to continue implementing best management practices and other measures that have successfully reduced manure and other nutrient runoff from farmlands to the state’s waterways.
She said they’re exploring possibilities for cooperating with out-of-state entities. Teaming up with Shenandoah Valley groups, for example, might help in the USDA’s calculations to determine which eight areas get the critical dollars.
If there are eight. The act directs the secretary to designate “up to” eight areas, and it seems likely there will be eight, but it could be a lower number.
“There are many other entities interested in this money,” Coleman said. “We are competing against the Red River Valley, the Everglades, the Upper Mississippi, the Great Lakes.
“The stakes are high.”
Reporter Dick Wanner can be reached at email@example.com or 717-419-4703.