03.21.17

Chairman Roberts Highlights Need for Conservation Efforts in the Farm Bill

WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, today addressed the National Association of Conservation Districts, urging advocacy for voluntary conservation programs in the upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization.

“The conservation districts are the perfect example where we see coordination in government working at its best – bringing together federal, state, local and private partners and leveraging those resources to get conservation on the ground,” said Roberts.  

“It is important to deliver a united message that locally led and voluntary conservation incentives have always been the foundation of USDA conservation programs. Voluntary conservation – not regulation – is an effective model that resonates with producers across the country.” 

“Federal investment in these programs has a proven track record of success to incentivize farmers and ranchers to install best management conservation practices on the ground to help address critical natural resource concerns like improving water quality, improving soil health, or enhancing wildlife habitat.” 

The following is Chairman Roberts’ remarks as prepared for delivery:

Thank you for the kind introduction and the warm welcome. It’s great to be here today with all of you. 

Before I begin with my remarks, I first want to thank all of you for traveling to Washington and for the work that you do on behalf of the National Association of Conservation Districts. 

In my view, the conservation districts are the perfect example where we see coordination in government working at its best – bringing together federal, state, local and private partners and leveraging those resources to get conservation on the ground.  

You probably don’t hear it often enough, but thank you for all the work that you do for conservation. 

I would like to take this time to share with you the work that we have ahead of us at the Agriculture Committee. Needless to say, you have come to Washington at a busy time.  

One immediate task at hand is the nomination of Governor Sonny Perdue to be Secretary of Agriculture.  

On Thursday, the Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to consider his nomination.  We will move as quickly as possible in a bipartisan manner to advance his nomination.

In other news, just last week the Administration released its 2018 budget blueprint which included significant discretionary spending cuts to agencies across the federal government, including USDA.  

While I applaud the Administration for attempting to trim some of the federal governments’ excessive spending – indiscriminate, across the board cuts are not always the best approach. As I’ve said before, we need to use a scalpel, not an ax.  

Now more than ever, it is important for agriculture to chime in on what programs, including technical assistance, are and are not working. What programs are integral to the implementation of conservation on the ground for farmers, land owners and operators?   

The Committee will also be busy as we gear up for reauthorization of the Farm Bill.  

When I became Chairman, I said we must listen to our stakeholders first. And as we start this Farm Bill process, that’s exactly what we’re doing.  

Last month, Senator Stabenow and I were in Manhattan, Kansas, where we held the first field hearing for the upcoming Farm bill. We are planning to head to Michigan next, and of course we will have hearings later this year in Washington as well. 

With 600 in attendance at the first hearing, producers from across Kansas provided testimony highlighting the difficult and downward trending farm economy, the importance of working lands conservation programs, and the need for crop insurance and other risk management tools. I predict this will be a common message we hear from farmers and ranchers across the country.  

Now, you probably recall that the 2014 Farm Bill underwent a significant reform and a substantial overhaul of programs.  

Across all titles of the Farm Bill – whether it be the commodity, conservation, or crop insurance title – there was a concerted effort by Congress to consolidate and streamline USDA programs in light of budgetary constraints. 

The intent behind this was to make USDA programs more defensible, while also providing greater program flexibility and improving program performance and delivery.  

Specifically, the conservation title – or Title II – consolidated 23 separate programs into 13 programs. As a result, conservation programs contributed $6 billion in savings towards deficit reduction. 

For example, three separate easement program authorities were merged into a single Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. 

For the Conservation Reserve Program, the total acreage cap was reduced to 24 million acres and there were new incentives incorporated in the program like grassland enrollments.  

The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program was consolidated into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. 

Several existing conservation program authorities were combined to create the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program to implement conservation projects on a regional or watershed scale through partnership agreements.  

You now see a consolidated suite of USDA conservation programs that were intended to provide greater efficiencies from an administration and delivery perspective.  

As Congress contemplates the direction of conservation programs moving forward, we will rely heavily upon feedback from organizations like the National Association of Conservation Districts. 

As individuals who help get conservation programs installed on the ground, you know first-hand the impacts of program policy changes from the last Farm Bill.  

From an implementation perspective, I’m sure organizations like yours have suggestions about what worked well and what administrative challenges remain.  

As you start to develop the policies that you plan to advocate for, I encourage you to think broadly about conservation programs. 

Ask yourselves, “Are existing conservation program working as originally intended?”  “Or, are voluntary conservation program resources being redirected to address regulatory issues from agencies like EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service?”    

From a funding perspective, the conservation title is now the third largest title in the Farm Bill totaling $5.8 billion each year.  

With that in mind, it is becoming more evident that some are starting to scrutinize USDA conservation programs and conservation practices.  

It is important now to lay the groundwork to defend conservation programs that work and continued federal investment in these programs.  

Given the state of the rural economy, I imagine the context for consideration of the next Farm Bill will be extremely difficult. Conservation program funding, having already contributed $6 billion in savings, will be hard pressed.  

There is also the recurring threat from Farm Bill critics and opponents who are becoming more and more vocal and visible.  

It is important to deliver a united message that locally led and voluntary conservation incentives have always been the foundation of USDA conservation programs.  

Voluntary conservation – not regulation – is an effective model that resonates with producers across the country.  

Federal investment in these programs has a proven track record of success to incentivize farmers and ranchers to install best management conservation practices on the ground to help address critical natural resource concerns like improving water quality, improving soil health, or enhancing wildlife habitat.  

Clearly, we have a full plate ahead of us and not a lot of time. 

Now it is more important than ever for groups like yours to be here advocating for the programs that are important to you.  

Thank you again for being a strong partner and advocate for conservation.  

I look forward to working with you and I’m happy to take a few questions.

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Meghan Cline
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