The “Farm Bill” of today is comprised of multiple Titles passed by the United States Congress to enhance agricultural productivity and conservation on private lands.
The Farm Bill is not a single piece of legislation but a series of Acts since 1930 that include new programs or revise existing ones. It affects every citizen, from those who eat to everyone who grows what we eat.
Food Security Act of 1985
The Food Security Act of 1985 was the first Farm Bill to broaden programs addressing conservation on private lands. It addressed three central provisions:
- Intended to address erosion, the Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC) program established conservation requirements for land broken out of permanent vegetation for farming (Sodbuster) and compliance requirements for cropland that is actively being farmed.
- The Wetland Conservation provisions (Swampbuster) were enacted to reduce wetland loss.
- The CRP’s purpose was to establish permanent cover to rest highly erodible lands from crop production.
Swampbuster and Sodbuster both function as disincentives, with landowners facing the loss of financial benefits if they fail to comply with the program’s provisions. Conversely, the CRP offers annual rental payments and cost-share incentives to remove highly erodible lands from tillage. Though initially focused on soil conservation, the CRP has evolved to include wildlife conservation objectives.
The Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990
The Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act began the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) to repair, preserve, and improve wetlands and the Stewardship Incentives Program to encourage forest stewardship.
The Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996
The Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act launched multiple programs:
- The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) was to repair and improve habitat for fish and wildlife.
- The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) was to address an extensive array of environmental issues, including at-risk species habitat.
- The Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), formerly the Farmland Protection Program, was to provide tools to protect agricultural lands.
- State Technical Committees (STC) were authorized to advise the USDA on implementing conservation programs.
The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002
Farm Security and Rural Investment Act created the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) to restore and protect grasslands and the Conservation Security Program to reward and encourage conservation efforts.
The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008
The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act:
- Eliminated the Conservation Security Program,
- Considerably increased funding to conservation programs,
- Established the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP),
- Continued the Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP),
- Added tax incentives for conservation easements and recovery actions for threatened and endangered species,
- Provided additional opportunities for including partners in the implementation of WHIP, EQIP, and CSP by establishing the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, and
- Provided incentives for private landowners who allow wildlife-recreational access on their lands.
Agricultural Act of 2014
The Agricultural Act:
- Continued CRP, EQIP, and CSP; merged WHIP into EQIP, with at least 5% of EQIP funds dedicated to fish and wildlife habitat-related practices
- Combined WRP, GRP, and FRPP into the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP),
- Created the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) that consolidated the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program, Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Great Lakes Basin Program, and other landscape-based efforts, and
- Reestablished the link between conservation compliance and eligibility for crop insurance.
At its origin, the Farm Bill was designed to ensure a plentiful food source, a living for farmers, and healthy soil and water in the process. The Farm Bill as we know it today has a much broader meaning. It is “omnibus” legislation, meaning it covers a wide variety of programs and policies all in one package and its overall aims cover just about every citizen.
Highly Erodible Land and Wetland Conservation Compliance
While much of the Farm Bill focused on incentives to encourage voluntary adoption of conservation practices, it also had regulatory provisions addressing compliance. Compliance components were jointly delivered through cooperation between NRCS and FSA.
The NRCS determined if highly erodible soils and wetlands were present on a property, offered technical assistance to locate such areas, and recommended conservation practices to protect soil or wetland resources. At the same time, the FSA administered Sodbuster and Swampbuster compliance and made programmatic decisions.
Unlike Farm Bill programs that financially incentivized conservation in agricultural landscapes, the compliance provisions used disincentives to prevent adverse effects on soil and wetland resources. Non-compliance with these compliance provisions resulted in substantial loss of benefits, could affect participants’ ability to continue production, and prevented participation in Farm Bill programs.
A significant factor in the protection of wetlands, a lack of wetlands compliance, was a primary reason wetland loss due to agricultural alterations has improved from approximately 400,000 acres per year lost in the 1970s to net gains of wetlands in recent years.