Skip to main content

Conservation Issues Are Central to the Ongoing Farm Bill Debate

The bill’s assistance programs help farmers and ranchers respond to land management issues.

By Megan Bland  |  March 18, 2024

The 2018 farm bill, the nation’s most significant recurring agricultural legislation, expired on Sept. 30, 2023, after delays and a failure to release a new draft in both chambers of Congress. The omnibus, multiyear law, formally known as the Agriculture Improvement Act, governs a variety of agricultural and nutrition programs. It is generally considered “must pass” legislation.

While most farm bill programs have funding through the end of the calendar year, others have lapsed, such as the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program. Significant ramifications are expected if Congress fails to pass either a new farm bill or an extension of the 2018 legislation by Dec. 31, including the reversion of farm commodity programs to 1938 and 1949 permanent law. This could lead to a dramatic increase in prices for commodities such as corn and milk, and a total loss of support for other important commodities, including soybeans and sugar.

Farm Bill Basics

The farm bill is an omnibus, multiyear law that funds crop insurance, crop subsidies, and research to assist food production and sustainable agricultural practices. It also pays for food assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which supports nearly 42 million Americans. More from NCSL:

The law contains 12 titles, or sections, and as Congress develops its next iteration, Title II, covering agricultural conservation, will be an important focus. In the 2018 version, Title II authorized 13 voluntary conservation programs and provided about $60 billion—or 7% of the total farm bill budget—in program funding over five years. The conservation programs receive new mandated funding in each iteration, which removes them from the congressional appropriations process. The programs aim to help farmers and ranchers implement and improve conservation practices, which in turn help support the health and sustainability of the agriculture sector.

The Department of Agriculture administers the programs through the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency. The agencies help farmers and ranchers achieve conservation objectives by addressing multiple natural resources concerns.

The core of the conservation title comprises three programs:

  • The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, is the nation’s largest land retirement program and focuses on the retirement of agricultural land for conservation purposes. The program’s statutory authority to authorize new contracts ended when the 2018 law expired.
  • The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, provides financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers to address natural resources problems through conservation practices.
  • The Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP, provides financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers both to maintain and improve existing conservation practices and to implement new ones.

The importance of the three programs is underscored by their size and the additional funding they receive through other legislation. In 2023, CRP and EQIP cost $2 billion each and CSP cost $1 billion. In 2022, the Inflation Reduction Act extended the program authorities through 2031 and mandated about $17 billion in additional funding through 2026 for CSP, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to address climate change-related conservation practices.

The 2022 act also provided an additional $1 billion to supplement the programs’ conservation technical assistance support. The popularity of these programs has shifted in recent years, with the number of CRP applications declining, while demand for the EQIP and CSP programs outpaces capacity.

The financial assistance provided through these programs is market-based and specifically designed to avoid disrupting the productivity of the local agriculture sector. Tailored, research-based technical assistance programs emphasize locally adaptable practices and allow farmers and ranchers to target their response to natural resources and land management concerns.

The farm bill’s other voluntary conservation programs include conservation compliance, easement, land retirement, partnerships and grants, and working lands programs.

As Congress develops a new Farm Bill, it remains unclear how it might change the voluntary conservation programs. However, several topics are likely to be at the forefront of the debate, including:

  • Adjustments to mandatory program funding.
  • Continued emphasis on conservation practices that mitigate extreme weather.
  • Expansion of technical assistance.
  • Programmatic reforms.
  • Continuation of conservation compliance mandates.
  • Efforts to increase the participation of underrepresented communities.

NCSL is committed to furthering the priorities of states, farmers, ranchers and foresters by promoting increased state-federal communication and coordination. NCSL will advocate for the continuation of programs that benefit these important stakeholders in the agricultural sector.

Megan Bland is a legislative specialist in NCSL’s State-Federal Affairs Division.

  • Contact NCSL

  • For more information on this topic, use this form to reach NCSL staff.