NRCS fees debated in budget talks

Jan 10, 2014

As the farm bill debates continue, bits and pieces of various amendments keep making their way out of the chamber, to the ire of many ag groups.

The latest piece, according to Andrew McElwaine, President and CEO of American Farmland Trust, has Congress imposing a new conservation fee on farmers and ranchers who volunteer to help the environment as part of the Senate-House budget agreement.

AFT, along with other ag groups, has vowed to oppose a provision in the agreement authorizing the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to charge farmers up to $150 to help them prepare farm conservation plans.

“Reducing nutrients from farm runoff costs almost 60 percent less than the same reduction from a sewage treatment plant,” said McElwaine. “We should be rewarding farmers who voluntarily put conservation plans in place. Instead we’re going to charge them.”

The provision was added to the 2014 budget agreement last month, and allows NRCS to charge the fees in the hopes of saving USDA up to $39 million over 10 years. But McElwaine sees it as a deterrent to those needing the help.

“Conservation plans are a fundamental first step farmers take to reduce erosion and keep sediment and nutrients from running off their land. Without this plan, those reductions won’t take place and instead taxpayers will have to pay to upgrade local water and sewer systems,” he said.

The provision would allow NRCS to charge a fee on programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, or any other major USDA conservation programs.

“Taking this action at a time when it appears congressional negotiators have failed to come to agreement on a new farm bill is extremely disappointing. Many critical federal farm programs ended on Sept. 30 when the last farm bill expired and thousands of family farmers and ranchers are facing an uncertain future,” McElwaine said.

Last week, several groups including California Farm Bureau Federation, the Montana Stockgrowers Association, the Public Lands Council and the Nature Conservancy sent a letter to the House Agriculture Committee sharing the problems with the provision.

User fees “would serve as a disincentive to producers to engage in necessary planning and an obstacle to delivering effective conservation,” they wrote.

Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, shared with DTN that he is prodding lawmakers to get rid of the fee in the farm bill. He has heard from USDA officials that they have the authority to keep the fees low. The problem, however, is what happens to those fees in the future?

“It seems to me the opportunity is right to fix it,” Hoefner said. “The history of government user fees is that once they are in place they go up. The next time appropriators need dollars or the next time there is a budget reconciliation act or the next time there is a budget deal, they will say, ‘Oh, here’s a user fee. Let’s just jack that up.’ From our vantage point, it’s a bad idea.”

Originally established by Congress in 1935 as the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), NRCS has expanded to become a conservation leader for all natural resources, ensuring private lands are conserved, restored, and more resilient to environmental challenges, like climate change.

Seventy percent of the land in the United States is privately owned, making stewardship by private landowners absolutely critical to the health of our nation’s environment.

NRCS works with landowners through conservation planning and assistance designed to benefit the soil, water, air, plants and animals that result in productive lands and healthy ecosystems.

In cooperation with farmers and ranchers in 2013, NRCS:

• Developed conservation plans for more than 43.8 million acres. NRCS conservationists develop these plans that include a map of the land and a proposed suite of conservation practices.

• Obligated more than $4 billion in technical and financial assistance for agricultural conservation.

• Enrolled more than 279,000 acres into conservation easements, setting aside valuable wetlands, grasslands and farmlands. These landscapes help create wildlife habitat, clean air and water and lead to other environmental benefits.

• Worked with producers in the Ogallala Aquifer region, the nation’s breadbasket, to implement conservation practices that use water wisely on more than 70,000 acres.

• Improved habitat for at-risk wildlife. Two initiatives geared toward the lesser prairie chicken and sage grouse put conservation practices on more than 220,000 acres and 570,000 acres, respectively. • Assisted producers in the Mississippi River basin to improve water quality, restore wetlands and improve wildlife habitat on more than 255,000 acres. • Helped landowners in nine states improve sustainability and profitability of longleaf pine forests, an iconic forest of the Southeast, on more than 50,000 acres.

NRCS employs conservation and natural resource experts, who work to improve the way that farmers and ranchers can use conservation to help their land and the environment. This year, NRCS:

• Developed an updated soil health training curriculum based on more recent science and best practices.

• Appeared in three episodes of public television series, “This American Land,” showcasing conservation.

• Introduced the Rapid Carbon Soil Assessment, an online dataset providing information on how much carbon is stored in soils.

• Worked with Colorado State University to create COMET- FARMTM, an online tool to help producers estimate the impacts of conservation on soil carbon levels.

• Increased conservation program participation of historically underserved communities by up to 200 percent under the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity initiative. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor