The Farm Bill and Climate-Smart Funds

Argument Continues Over IRA Conservation Dollars and Farm Bill

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent
From left, John Painter, Painterland Farms, in Westfield, Pennsylvania; Jim Stone, Rolling Stone Ranch, Ovando, Montana; and Paul Danborn, Brindeiro & Danborn Dairy Farm, Turlock, California. Each talked about climate-smart practices on their farms. (DTN photo by Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow made clear this week that she remains determined not to move any of the remaining $16.7 billion in climate-related conservation money in the Inflation Reduction Act into the farm bill unless Republicans agree the money will continue to be spent on climate-related conservation programs.

The split over those conservation dollars is one of the biggest areas of division among senators on how to move forward with a farm bill.

On Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee Republican staff issued a blog post urging moving the money into the farm bill because it could become part of the baseline and guarantee funding for conservation in future years. But Republicans in Congress have said they believe the money should be spent on a broader array of conservation programs and used partially to increase budget authority for Title I farm subsidies that kick in when prices or incomes go down.

On Thursday, Stabenow, D-Mich., attended a Capitol Hill expo on climate-smart agriculture programs with eight farmers brought to Washington by the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The senator repeated a statement she had made a few weeks ago at a White House event that she wouldn't consider any other use of the money.

Stabenow said the IRA included increased funding for 49 of the 50 top conservation practices farmers use.

"I don't know when we will get another big investment like that," Stabenow said. "My goal is to make sure we don't walk away from this historic progress.

"I would love to move all those dollars into the conservation baseline and stretch that out and make it go even further. But we have to do it within the language that was put in [the IRA] around climate-smart agriculture."

On a chart adding the conservation dollars to the farm bill baseline, the Senate Agriculture Committee GOP staff maintain it would add an average of nearly $1.8 billion a year to conservation funding every year through 2050. Currently, the IRA dollars are set to end in fiscal year 2032.

Stabenow noted some Republicans have said they want to move half the money into the commodity title.

"The answer to that is no," she said. "We need to tell the story over and over again, how significant this is, how important it is. We need to make sure those resources are there," Stabenow said to the farmers present and the many congressional aides who also attended the event.

Asked after the event if her comments were a reaction to the GOP blog post, Stabenow said if there would be a bipartisan agreement to keep the IRA money in climate-smart conservation programs, she would agree to move the money into the conservation title of the farm bill.

"We do that, and we've got a winner," she said.

STABENOW WILLING TO DELAY

Stabenow has said she is comfortable with not writing a farm bill this year, even though she is retiring, if that means saving the conservation money in the IRA and maintaining the Agriculture Department's ability to rewrite the Thrifty Food Plan that is used to determine benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Republicans have complained the Biden administration used that authority to raise SNAP benefit levels and want to put a provision in the next farm bill to restrict USDA's ability to increase benefits.

Asked for his views on whether maintaining the IRA climate-smart conservation program is worth a delayed farm bill, Mike Lavender, the policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said if those programs were moved to the conservation title of the farm bill and it did not "fully protect" those programs, NSAC could not support the bill.

There are "plenty of things NSAC wants to see updated" in the next farm bill, Lavender said, but he indicated that protecting the programs in the IRA, which can be spent until 2031, is a priority.

The seven farmers who made presentations Thursday all declined to take a position on whether maintaining the conservation money in the IRA was worth a delay in passing a new bill. The 2018 farm bill expired last September but has been extended until Sept. 30, 2024.

All the farmers said they were not up to speed on the farm bill and Washington politics, but Raymond Kelley, a cattle rancher from Faulkner County, Arkansas, said members of Congress "have got to come together and figure it out."

FARMS WEIGH IN ON CLIMATE AND CONSERVATION

At a roundtable discussion with Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie, all the farmers said USDA conservation programs are vital to their operations.

Bonnie said USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service provided a record level of financial assistance last year, but it only "scratched half the itch," a reference to the demand from farmers for services. NRCS is trying to "streamline" its application process, Bonnie said.

John Painter of Painterland Farms in Westfield, Pennsylvania, said, "The climate is something constantly changing. We are the first conservationists."

Conservation, he added, "is an investment in food security. It shouldn't be politically divided."

People talk about red states and blue states, Painter said, but "we are trying to make all states green."

When farmers get money for conservation, he added, "we improve the community."

Jim Stone of the Rolling Stone Ranch in Ovando, Montana, said, "The word 'climate' sometimes terrifies people. A better term is people-smart."

The NRCS "crew" in Montana is "outstanding," Stone said. Half the battle in convincing people to participate in climate-smart agriculture "is in the conversation," he said.

Stone added that he and his family are fortunate to live in a place that still has "all the critters" that were there when Lewis and Clark explored the territory.

Jim Danborn of the Brindeiro & Danborn Dairy Farm in Turlock, California, said he looks at climate-smart programs "like planting a seed."

"Originally I was hesitant," Danborn said. "But once I put those projects into place, it is not just climate-smart, it is smart in general."

He noted that he uses all organic fertilizer and that during the pandemic when synthetic fertilizer prices were going up, his neighbors realized that he was not dependent on imported fertilizer.

Kelley, the cattle rancher from Arkansas, said, "Climate change is real, and I have seen it over the years. Back when I was a young guy, I could process hogs in December, you knew it would stay cold. Now you don't know."

"Arkansas and other southeastern states are feeling the effect of the drought in the western states. It would be hard for small farms to operate without USDA."

Maggie Hanna of the Hanna Ranch in Fountain, Colorado, said she is one of the ranch children who left and came home.

Hanna said she lives in an area with a very high threat of conversion to housing developments and highways, and she is looking at her own "resilience." She said with modern practices she can manage the irrigation system and move cattle by herself and "made the shift in labor," which she noted is another problem in agriculture.

Joel Layman of Layman Farms in Michigan noted that the work of the farmers at the table is difficult, and he is grateful for the leadership that has moved agriculture away from "an extractive model."

Mark Isbell of Zero Grade Farms and Isbell Farms in England, Arkansas, noted that the farmers on the panel amounted to "a journey here across the United States."

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@nationaljournal.com.

Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @hagstromreport.

Jerry Hagstrom