America's 2014 Farm Bill

Conservation provisions in this new legislation will help protect and restore vital waterfowl habitat across the United States


Photo © Michael Furtman

By Eric Lindstrom

After two and a half years of delays and gridlock, Congress passed a new Farm Bill in February 2014. This bipartisan legislation provides more than $28 billion in funding for a variety of conservation programs on private lands. Following is an overview of important conservation provisions included in the new Farm Bill, and how they are likely to impact waterfowl and their habitats across the United States over the next five years.

Renewed Wetland Protections

Since the passage of the 1985 Farm Bill, federal agricultural policies have encouraged producers to cultivate the most productive lands and minimize impacts on wetlands and highly erodible soils in exchange for federal farm program benefits. This policy of "conservation compliance" has helped to provide an effective safety net for America's farmers, ensure an abundant and safe food supply for consumers, and conserve crucial habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. Research has confirmed that this policy has been very effective in conserving wetlands and other wildlife habitats on private lands over the past three decades. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 3 million acres of "farmed wetlands" (areas that can be cultivated and planted in dry years, but can't be drained or filled by producers without losing farm program benefits) may have been conserved nationwide thanks to this policy. In addition, conservation compliance has helped reduce soil erosion by approximately 295 million tons each year on more than 140 million acres of U.S. farmland.

In recent years, however, crop insurance has replaced traditional farm subsidies as the most important safety net for many producers, particularly in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), where farming can be risky business due to a short growing season and unpredictable weather. Since 1996, farmers have not had to comply with wetland conservation policies to receive federal crop insurance. Taxpayers fund roughly 62 percent of total crop insurance premium costs as well as some underwriting and claims supports. Recent estimates suggest that this assistance could total nearly $90 billion over the next decade. Ducks Unlimited and its partners firmly believe that farmers need a strong safety net, and that public resources should help support it. But we also think it's a fair deal and sound fiscal and conservation policy to discourage wetland drainage in exchange for this assistance.  

Without effective wetland protection policies linked to farm program benefits like crop insurance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that nearly 1.4 million small seasonal wetlands located in cropland-dominated landscapes in the eastern Dakotas and Montana—the heart of the U.S. "Duck Factory"—would be at high risk of drainage. These wetlands support nearly 3 million breeding ducks each year, or roughly one-third of the current U.S. breeding duck population. Widespread wetland drainage in this region would create the equivalent of a permanent man-made drought that would be catastrophic to continental waterfowl populations. 

During Farm Bill negotiations, DU played a key role in bringing together a broad coalition of leading commodity, crop insurance, and conservation groups that supported recoupling conservation compliance with crop insurance and opposed efforts to weaken the safety net for producers. Notable members of this diverse coalition included the National Farmers Union, National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association, American Farmland Trust, National Cotton Council of America, American Association of Crop Insurers, Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau, National Wildlife Federation, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and many others. This historic alliance played a vital role in the passage of a new Farm Bill that renewed important wetland protections. While this was a big win for DU and our partners, the upcoming rule-making and implementation process will be just as important to ensure that the Farm Bill's conservation provisions achieve their objectives. 

Preserving Native Prairie

Waterfowl need a combination of secure upland nesting cover and wetlands to successfully nest and raise their broods. Native prairie provides the ideal mix of these habitats, supporting millions of breeding waterfowl across the northern Great Plains. Native grasslands are also essential for livestock and forage production on the prairies. Maintaining a healthy livestock sector is vital to the future of waterfowl and their habitats in the PPR, as ranchers manage much of the most important waterfowl breeding habitat in this region.  

In recent years, federal policies, improved farming technologies, and other economic drivers have fueled large-scale conversion of native prairie across the Great Plains. During 2006−2011, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska suffered a net loss of 1.3 million acres of grasslands—a rate and scale not seen since the Dust Bowl era. In the PPR, grassland loss has exceeded the rate of protection by 500 to 600 percent. Widespread conversion of native prairie is harmful not only to waterfowl and other wildlife, but also to livestock producers, who in many areas of the PPR are dependent on native rangelands to sustain their herds. 

Thankfully, the 2014 Farm Bill provides much-needed relief to native grassland habitats on the northern Great Plains. The new law includes a stronger Sodsaver provision, which creates a federal disincentive for converting native prairie to cropland. While Sodsaver does not prohibit producers from breaking new land, it ensures that they do so at their own financial risk, and not at the taxpayer's expense. Under the new law, farmers who plow native sod will see their crop insurance premium subsidies reduced by 50 percentage points during the first four years of production on newly converted lands. This provision also prohibits landowners from applying yield performance from more productive acres in their operations to less productive newly broken lands. Bringing this often marginally productive land into production provides little benefit to taxpayers, increases soil erosion and nutrient loss, and ultimately leads to reduced water quality, increased flooding, and the loss of valuable wildlife habitat. 

Unlike the 2008 Farm Bill, which created a PPR-only Sodsaver program that required each state's governor to "opt in" to the program (none of them did), the new law is mandatory; there is no opt-in requirement. Furthermore, the new law includes the entire states—not just the PPR portion—of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska. If the risk of growing crops on recently plowed native prairie is not underwritten by taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance and disaster assistance programs, much of this land may never be cultivated. This will help slow the loss of crucial waterfowl breeding habitat across the nation's Duck Factory. 

Other Major Reforms

In an effort to achieve budget savings and streamline existing programs, the 2014 Farm Bill consolidates several former conservation programs. The new law will merge the Grassland Reserve Program, Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, and Wetlands Reserve Program into the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). Through ACEP, producers can enroll land in either agricultural or wetland easement programs, which will receive more than $2 billion in federal funding over the next five years. Wetland easements are highly popular with private landowners and an effective tool for conserving key waterfowl habitats in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley; Gulf Coast; Chesapeake Bay watershed; Pacific Northwest; Great Lakes; PPR; Central Valley of California; the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers; and many other areas of the United States. The law also created a new Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which merges several existing programs and provides funding incentives for state, federal, private, and nongovernmental organizations to form conservation partnerships to improve the health of iconic watersheds such as Chesapeake and Delaware Bays. 

Most of the conservation program cost savings in the new Farm Bill will come from reductions in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). CRP pays landowners an annual rental payment for 10 to 15 years to restore marginal cropland back to perennial cover. This program has been a huge success in many parts of the country, but particularly so on the prairies, where CRP grasslands have been a boon to populations of waterfowl, pheasants, and many other wildlife species. During the program's peak enrollment, CRP land in the PPR was credited with adding an estimated 2 million ducks to the fall flight each year. The 2008 Farm Bill authorized a national CRP enrollment cap of 32 million acres, although current enrollment is around 25.6 million acres. The 2014 Farm Bill will step down the national enrollment cap from 27.5 million acres in 2014 to 24 million acres by 2017. 

While funding cuts to conservation programs such as CRP present challenges, DU and its partners must also explore and develop new ways to make these programs more economically competitive and attractive to producers in an era of high commodity prices. This paradigm shift will require habitat managers to think outside the box when developing new incentive options to promote conservation on private lands. 

Clearly, federal agricultural policies can have a huge impact, either positive or negative, on wetlands, waterfowl, and our hunting traditions. As the new Farm Bill's rule-making and implementation process proceeds over the next several months, DU and our partners will be working together to ensure that the law's hard-fought conservation provisions will result in more habitat on the ground and more waterfowl in the sky over the next five years and beyond. 

Eric Lindstrom is a government affairs representative at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck, North Dakota.

DU SUPPORTERS HELPED PUSH FARM BILL OVER THE GOAL LINE Ducks Unlimited members, volunteers, and staff played a key role in passing a new Farm Bill in 2014 with sportsmen's top priorities intact. They scheduled meetings and on-the-ground tours with members of Congress, and used social media to ensure that their elected representatives in Washington heard what waterfowl and other wildlife needed in this legislation. During four scheduled "social media days," DU supporters sent messages to members of Congress in every state, generating more than 10 million impressions. DU supporters pushed hard for two main proposals in the new five-year Farm Bill: recoupling conservation compliance to crop insurance and creating a stronger Sodsaver program. The messages got through, and after a three-year struggle, Congress passed the 2014 Farm Bill, which included both of DU's top priorities. Many thanks to everyone who joined DU in telling their legislators how important Farm Bill conservation programs are to waterfowl, other wildlife, and people. Your efforts truly made a difference!