Rural Development, Conservation Programs Set to Expire

If Congress doesn’t pass a stop-gap measure to fund the operations of the Department of Agriculture and a conservation fund, programs that support rural development, infrastructure, and the recreation economy will cease operations.

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UPDATE, October 1, 2018: The farm-bill deadline passed with no congressional action to extend current levels of funding for the federal programs described below.

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While nutrition and commodity crop support programs in the farm bill will continue to operate, federal programs that support conservation, entrepreneurship, and rural infrastructure will stop Monday (October 1, 2018) without action from Congress.

Two pieces of legislation – the farm bill, which provides overall funding and direction for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and authorizing legislation for the Land and Waters Conservation Fund – will expire Sunday if Congress doesn’t act.

Nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and farm support programs (primarily commodity and crop insurance payments) will remain operational. But other so-called “orphaned” programs will lose either their mandatory funding. A Congressional Research Service report conducted earlier this year found 39 farm bill programs that lose funding at the end of the current fiscal year:

Among the largest group of programs that will expire October 1 are popular conservation programs. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition:

Just over $1 billion in unobligated conservation and specialty crop funding will be frozen starting October 1. Core farm bill conservation programs – the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) – are only authorized to operate for fiscal years 2014 through 2018, which means that though these programs have over $1 billion in funding for fiscal year 2019, , USDA does not have the legal authority to use it absent a short-term farm bill extension.

CSP is the nation’s largest conservation program by land area, with more than 72 million acres currently enrolled. There are also many farmers interested in signing up for the program. According a recent analysis of the program by Paige Stanley for the Union of Concerned Scientists, CSP delivers a $4 return on investment for every $1 contributed by taxpayers.

“In addition to the conservation programs, there are a variety of programs we’re concerned about,” said Anna Johnson, policy manager at the nonprofit Center for Rural Affairs. “Our mission at the Center for Rural Affairs is all about building and fostering vibrant rural communities,” Johnson said. “One of the ways to accomplish that is to have diverse economic opportunities. There many farm bill programs that help to make that happen.”

Critical programs the center is watching include the following:

  • Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program. This provides small amounts of capital (under $50,000) for entrepreneurs – money that may be harder to get from commercial lenders.
  • Beginning Farmer and Rancher Training Program, which provides education and training for beginning farmers and ranchers.
  • Value Added Producer Grants, which provide business planning and operating capital for farmers to add value their crops and livestock.\
  • National Organic Cost-Share Program, which supports cost-share payments for farmers to gain or retain organic certification.
  • Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, which supports local food marketing and distribution efforts.

“For USDA to not be able to continue to implement and move these programs forward, there’s just so much uncertainty,” Johnson said. “I’ve been thinking about it like a mini-government shutdown. … We just urge Congress to pass a farm bill–and if they can’t do that to pass an extension–and not leave these important programs, nor the conservation programs, without the baseline funding they need to continue.”

After more than a year of intensive debate, Congress has failed to move the farm bill through the final stages of the legislative process. The House version of the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2) passed June 21 along partisan lines after it was initially defeated in May. The House vote was extremely close, narrowly passing the second round in a 213-211 vote. All Democrats opposed the House bill, primarily because of cuts and work requirements for participants in nutrition programs.

The Senate, a week later, passed their version of the replacement bill with a strong bipartisan 85-11 vote. The Senate bill maintains the structure of current farm bill for the most part, while also providing mandatory funding for many programs canceled by the House bill.

House and Senate negotiators began their work to reconcile the two versions of the bill weeks ago but have not reached a recommendation to take back to legislators for approval.

Another source of conservation funding, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), pays for local parks and recreation areas all across America, drawing from the proceeds derived from fossil fuel extraction. Without Congressional action, LWCF will also at the end of the current fiscal year September 30th.

A bipartisan group of legislators and conservationists led by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-08) held an event Thursday in Washington, DC, to call to for immediate passage and permanent reauthorization of LWCF. The speakers highlighted the importance of the LWCF for hunters and anglers, the veteran community, conservation efforts and the American economy.

Both LWCF and farm bill conservation programs make up critical components of funding for publicly accessible sites and habitat that are used for outdoor recreation

According to a Stateline analysis of Census data, the trend of increases in outdoor recreation in rural communities is part of what drove the overall slight growth of the rural population in the United States from 2016 to 2017. The overall population in rural counties grew by only about 33,000 from 2016-17, to about 46 million. While counties with large mining and farming industries shrank, counties with large recreation industries grew the most, by about 42,000, to about 6.3 million. Stateline is a reporting initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

 

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