OPINION The American Farmland Trust is proud to stand alongside 164 other organizations and corporations in calling for Congress to maintain the $28 billion proposed for conservation programs in the reconciliation package. This funding recognizes the critical role that our nation’s farmers and ranchers can play in combatting climate change. It represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to provide producers with the tools they need to protect their land, increase resilience to extreme weather, sequester carbon and reduce emissions – all while improving their soils and profitability.
The $28 billion in funding would provide a much-needed investment in U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs, which have proven consistently popular with farmers. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program helps many producers adopt regenerative practices like cover crops and no-till. For every one producer who receives funding, as many as three others are turned away due to insufficient funds. The current conservation section would increase Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding by $9 billion while also increasing Conservation Stewardship Program funding by $4 billion.
The American Farmland Trust in November 2020 called for a Cover Crop Initiative as one of five transition recommendations. According to American Farmland Trust research, tripling cover-crop acreage, when combined with no-till, would have the same climate impact as removing as many as 260 million cars from roadways every single year. The reported conservation section includes a $5 billion Cover Crop Initiative, which would bring us closer to that goal by paying farmers $25 per acre per year to plant cover crops. The initiative would also offer a $5-per-acre incentive to non-operating landowners – an innovative idea to increase adoption of regenerative practices on rented farmland. Because more than half of cropland is rented in some regions, landowners are an essential partner to achieving national conservation goals. The American Farmland Trust’s Women for the Land Initiative research has shown that women non-operating landowners are an especially receptive, and often untapped, community for advancing regenerative practices.
We also appreciate the proposal’s recognition of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, including its Agricultural Land Easements subprogram, as essential to any meaningful climate strategy. The American Farmland Trust Farms Under Threat research revealed that from 2001 to 2016, 11 million acres of agricultural land in the United States were paved over or converted to uses that threaten the future of agriculture. Lost with those acres is not only a reduced-emission land use when compared to developed land, but also a critical carbon sink. Because eased lands will remain in agricultural use, they represent some of our best opportunities for ensuring that the carbon sequestered through regenerative practices remains in the soil.
American Farmland Trust research has highlighted the climate benefits of farmland protection through avoided greenhouse-gas emissions – an approach that California has taken with its Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program. This past year alone, agricultural-land protection projects funded through the program were estimated to prevent the release of more than 4 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent through avoided vehicle emissions and other factors. To that end, the American Farmland Trust especially encourages Congress to sustain the $1.5 billion proposed for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program as negotiations continue. In addition to being a climate strategy, agricultural conservation easements are also an important way to create land-access opportunities for the next generation of producers, particularly as the current generation of farmers reaches retirement.
We welcome the proposed additional support for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The American Farmland Trust has engaged producers and partners in several Regional Conservation Partnership Program projects across the nation. We believe the additional focus on Alternative Funding Arrangements will help to ensure the program enables wider practice adoption, while also serving as a proving ground for innovative conservation approaches. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program can also be used for farmland protection and for advancing regenerative practices on eased lands.
We thank legislators for their leadership throughout this process. With devastating storms, droughts, floods and fires already impacting production, our nation’s farmers and ranchers continue to find themselves on the front lines of climate change. The proposed $28 billion in conservation funding is key to helping lead our nation in meeting the greatest challenge of the 21st century. We encourage Congress to maintain this funding as negotiations continue.