The stakes are high as Congress begins serious discussions to reauthorize the farm bill, which expires at the end of September 2023. Among other things, this legislation represents a major opportunity to enable private landowners, farmers, ranchers, and rural communities to take action to address the crises of climate change and nature loss.
Congress must have the back of farmers, ranchers, landowners, and communities who are stepping up to lead on conservation and climate change.
In fact, in a divided Congress where House majority leadership has staked out an obstructionist position on most climate action, the must-pass farm bill may represent the only meaningful opportunity to make progress on these issues in the 118th Congress. Conversely, if extreme positions prevail and Congress strips away farm bill program investments made in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, America will take a massive step backward on climate, conservation, and rural prosperity.
Scale of the climate and nature opportunity
Farm bill conservation programs represent the largest source of federal funding for private landowners to preserve and steward their lands, waters, and wildlife for current and future generations; yet demand for these programs significantly outpaces supply, and competing pressures are growing.1 Meanwhile, as the climate crisis deepens, farm bill support can enable U.S. agriculture to lead the world in climate-smart innovation, help farmers and ranchers benefit from greenhouse gas-reducing practices, and build cleaner and more reliable energy solutions for rural America.
Share of U.S. emissions that come from the agricultural sector
Portion of natural area loss in the United States occurring on private lands
Climate-smart agriculture represents a crucial front in the fight against climate change. With 10 percent of U.S. emissions coming from the agricultural sector and abundant opportunities to reduce emissions through improved practices and land use, the farm bill’s voluntary incentive programs hold tremendous potential to deliver meaningful gains for farmers and the climate.2 Additionally, a 2021 CAP analysis found that nature loss in the United States is driving the emissions of 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMT CO2e) each year.3 However, achieving President Joe Biden’s U.S. land conservation goal has the potential to reverse that trend and yield an additional 215 MMT CO2e stored by nature—as much savings as taking 47 million cars off the road. New farm bill program investments through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) recognize the fundamental link between conservation and climate and direct resources toward practices that achieve conservation, resilience, and greenhouse gas reduction goals, all while supporting rural clean energy solutions that are building more resilient, reliable, and affordable energy systems.
In recent years, America has lost roughly a football field’s worth of natural area every 30 seconds to development, and more than three-quarters of that loss is occurring on private lands, which is where farm bill programs focus.4 As a lifeline to farmers, forest owners, and others who are doing their part to conserve “America the Beautiful,” farm bill conservation and forest programs are critical to achieving the national conservation mission launched by President Biden and supported by community leaders across the country.5
“America the Beautiful” is an all-of-government initiative anchored around conserving at least 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030—America’s first national conservation goal, established by President Biden on January 27, 2021. The initiative focuses on supporting inclusive, collaborative, respectful, and locally led conservation efforts for the benefit of all people.6
The farm bill helps conserve tens of millions of acres of farmland, grassland, wetland, and forest on an ongoing basis; improve water quality; protect and restore valuable wildlife habitat; and support hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation.7 The federal government estimates that the Inflation Reduction Act’s new investments in these programs could support conservation on an additional 125 million acres of land—representing an area larger than the state of California—by reaching up to 280,000 farmers and ranchers over four years.8 Additionally, independent analyses have projected that IRA investments will create tens of thousands of agriculture-related jobs annually.9
Independent analyses have projected that IRA investments will create tens of thousands of agriculture-related jobs annually.
Importantly, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implementation of new conservation and climate-smart investments can also ensure that historic inequities in farm bill funding distribution are actively addressed to guarantee that benefits flow to marginalized, underserved, and historically disadvantaged communities. These targeted investments are needed to achieve the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative and other equity commitments.
The Center for American Progress strongly supports cementing and building on the $19.5 billion for conservation and climate-smart agriculture10 and the $13.3 billion for farm bill energy programs11 invested through the Inflation Reduction Act to unlock historic progress in the agriculture, forestry, and rural energy sectors. After drastic cuts to conservation title funding below historic levels in previous farm bills, IRA investments represent sorely needed stepping stones to establish the long-term, durable funding needed to meet today’s needs. As the USDA deploys new funding for climate-smart agriculture and conservation12 and rural energy projects,13 Congress must have the back of farmers, ranchers, landowners, and communities who are stepping up to lead on conservation and climate change.
In reauthorizing the farm bill, Congress should prioritize the opportunities below—policies that will improve ecosystem and community resilience, preserve wildlife habitat, protect drinking water, improve water quality, enhance recreation opportunities, increase energy reliability, cut costs, address inequities, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions:
- Agricultural conservation easements: Congress should increase overall funding for the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and direct more proportionally to wetland reserve and grassland easements. More funding is needed to help bridge the large gap between available funding and unmet demand from landowners and conservation partners. Through financial and technical assistance, ACEP allows landowners to conserve farmlands, grasslands, and wetlands in perpetuity, securing wildlife habitat, clean water, natural stores of carbon, and open space. Unfortunately, in fiscal year 2021, only 41 percent of applications for farm and grassland easements and just 6 percent of wetlands reserve easement applications were enrolled.14
- Forest conservation easements: Congress should substantially increase funding for forest conservation easements, whether through an expanded Healthy Forests Reserve Program or a new program. According to the USDA, privately owned forests account for more than half of all U.S. forested lands and supply nearly 30 percent of the water we drink.15 However, these forests face increasing pressure from development and related trends that risk permanent loss of their wildlife, climate, recreation, and local economic benefits.16 Forest easements play a critical role in preventing this permanent loss of private forests, but demand for easement funding vastly outstrips supply. Enhanced forest easement funding should be additional to—and should not reduce—important funding for grasslands and wetlands easements or other critical conservation programs. Additionally, Congress should increase funding to $25 million annually for the Community Forest and Open Space Program to enable communities to acquire forest lands for public recreation access, water supply, wildlife habitat, timber, and demonstration projects.
- Regional conservation collaboration: Congress should build on the IRA funding boost for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program and support the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in streamlining and simplifying the implementation of this vital program. The goal of the program is to enable collaborative watershed-scale and regionwide projects. It can be an important tool for habitat connectivity, landscape-scale collaboration, and natural climate solutions across local and state borders.
- Climate-smart agricultural practices: Congress must maintain and extend other IRA investments targeting greenhouse gas emission reductions, including Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which will support a range of climate-smart conservation practices on working lands. The funds these programs provide to producers are critical to reducing agricultural emissions and simultaneously offer farmers opportunities to improve their operations. Congress should also maintain the Inflation Reduction Act’s waiving of the Food Security Act requirement that 50 percent of EQIP funds go to livestock practices. This would provide farmers with greater flexibility to pursue climate-smart practices, especially nature-based solutions that have added benefits to wildlife, lands, and water.
- Resilient national forests: Congress should support science-based management of our national forests, with a focus on conserving the oldest forests, preserving healthy watersheds, and maintaining forest resilience in the face of climate change. In particular, a farm bill could establish a non-degradation policy for properly functioning watersheds under the Watershed Condition Framework that would provide direction to manage forests in a way that ensures the most intact and highly functioning watersheds remain healthy to help protect drinking water supplies, wildlife habitat, and other benefits. At the same time, Congress must not undermine science-based forest management through additional and unnecessary exemptions to environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act.17
- Lands reserved for wildlife, soil, and water health: Congress should raise previously reduced acreage caps for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) while encouraging longer-term conservation agreements and improved environmental benefits. The CRP enables farmers to keep sensitive lands out of production to reduce erosion and fertilizer use, improve water quality, and increase wildlife habitat. Among other values of the program, experts have estimated that 40 million sportsmen and women would lose access to hunting and fishing opportunities without the CRP’s habitat and clean water benefits.18 To further improve the program, the 2023 Farm Bill should refine and expand incentives to transition more lands into longer-term contracts and enroll lands with higher environmental benefits, such as building on the CLEAR30 pilot program.
- Rural clean energy: Congress should build on IRA funding to deploy rural clean energy infrastructure, including Rural Utilities Service loans, grants, and other financial assistance and the Rural Energy for America Program. These funds would enable rural electric cooperatives, farms, small businesses, and other entities to deploy renewable energy, transmission system improvements, energy efficiency projects, and other solutions that improve energy reliability, cut costs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.19
- Climate innovation research: Congress should invest in new research and data collection to improve climate-smart agriculture and conservation practices. Beginning with the $300 million in research funding through the Inflation Reduction Act,20 the USDA can help close gaps in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions tracking and support future innovation. This funding is aimed at better quantifying and tracking greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration in soils and biomass, including by collecting field data, assessing conservation outcomes, improving agriculture and forestry practices, and providing technical assistance.
- Addressing historic inequities: Congress must ensure that conservation, climate, and other farm bill investments address historic inequities and reach marginalized, underserved, and historically disadvantaged communities. Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian farmers and other farm bill program applicants have been subject to historical discrimination and racial and ethnic prejudice by federal policies and loan programs.21 To address this, Congress should build on provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill that targeted the needs of historically underserved producers22 as well as the $2.2 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act allocated for farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners who have suffered from discrimination by USDA farm loan programs.23 For conservation programs, specifically, Congress should expand technical assistance and address program access barriers, including by providing language assistance, expanding eligibility for Tribal entities, and recognizing traditional ecological knowledge-based conservation. Lawmakers should also increase conservation program set-asides for beginning and socially disadvantaged producers.24
- Rural capacity building: Congress should fund capacity building, planning, technical assistance, and training to maximize community benefits and equity. Resources available through the farm bill for conservation, climate, and resilience are critical to economic development and equity in rural and Indigenous communities. Yet the requirements for accessing funds, raising matching funds, and navigating the complex web of programs pose significant challenges. In addition, most rural, disadvantaged, and underserved communities have limited staff, expertise, time, and networks to plan, apply for, and win grants; meet federal requirements for project management; comply with regulations; innovate; and implement locally led strategies that leverage their unique assets and cultures. Capacity-building programs would, ideally, be authorized and funded through the bill’s Rural Development title. Placing authority and funding for capacity within a single agency, or in a new Strategic Development Council, would also maximize the leverage of federal conservation and climate investments.
- Agriculture Resilience Act: Finally, consistent with many of the above recommendations, Congress should consider incorporating the provisions of the Agriculture Resilience Act (S. 1016 / H.R. 1840).25 This bill would enable voluntary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, conserve resilient lands and waters, and achieve the bill’s goals of net-zero emissions from U.S. agriculture by 2040. Specifically, its provisions would deepen farm bill investments in soil health and other conservation projects via EQIP, CSP, ACEP, and CRP, among other programs; apply conservation compliance to all cropland; enhance research funding; support livestock methane management; boost support for rural energy efficiency and clean energy; prioritize funds for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers; and incorporate climate performance across various programs.
As the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss intensifies, America’s private natural and working lands represent a critical front and an area of immense opportunity. With the current farm bill set to expire at the end of September 2023, there is a lot on the line. Now is the time for congressional leaders to show up for farmers, ranchers, forest owners, and other community members who are ready to harness this opportunity and take the lead on safeguarding the nation’s natural resources and our climate.
The authors would like to thank CAP’s Carl Chancellor, Steve Bonitatibus, Doug Molof, Mark Haggerty, Nicole Gentile, Shannon Baker-Branstetter, and Trevor Higgins, as well as many external farm bill conservation experts with whom we consulted, for their contributions to this issue brief.