Farm Bill

Tractor plowing grassland

The importance of Farm Bill policy to Ducks Unlimited

Founded by concerned waterfowlers and foresighted conservationists in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has taken a continental, landscape approach to wetlands and waterfowl conservation. Guided by sound science and supported by legions of dedicated volunteers and members, DU has conserved more than 15 million acres of waterfowl habitat across North America.

DU's mission is to conserve, restore and manage wetlands and associated habitats for North America's waterfowl. Programs targeting habitat conservation not only benefit wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts but producers as well. The majority of the remaining wetlands in the United States are on private land, where most waterfowl are raised, migrate and winter. To further our mission, DU supports balanced agricultural policies that can help American farmers and ranchers be more competitive and successful in meeting demands for food, fiber and energy while conserving soil, water, wetlands, grasslands and forests that wildlife and people depend on. The Farm Bill is the most effective tool for conserving wildlife habitat on private land, which is central to DU's mission.

The current Farm Bill is an omnibus bill originally born from the impacts of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl on farmers and agricultural markets. It governs policy related to the agricultural sector, including farm income support, conservation, trade and more. Since the 1970s, Congress has expanded Farm Bill focus beyond farm supports to other policy areas affecting the agricultural sector including conservation efforts.

DU has a long history of working with ranchers, farmers, and other private landowners across the country to enhance and restore millions of acres of critical waterfowl and other wildlife habitats. The voluntary agricultural conservation programs that are authorized and funded through the Farm Bill are the backbone of DU’s cooperative conservation work with partners in agriculture.


Wetland Protections

Wetlands embedded within croplands, especially those in the Prairie Pothole Region, are some of the most threatened wildlife habitats on the continent. Conservation compliance requires producers who receive federal crop insurance premium assistance or any other federal farm program support to avoid draining wetlands to produce a commodity crop.

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. Notably, it included conservation compliance requirements for the first time. This policy (also commonly referred to as Swampbuster or Sodsaver) has helped 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. All subsequent farm bills have contained conservation titles.

The 2014 Farm Bill re-coupled conservation compliance to crop insurance, which was de-coupled in 1996. Research has confirmed that conservation compliance has been very effective in conserving wetlands on private lands over the past three decades. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 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) have been conserved nationwide thanks to this policy. In addition, it has helped reduce soil erosion by approximately 295 million tons per year on more than 140 million acres of U.S. farmland.

The newest 2018 Farm Bill upholds conservation compliance and ensures that it will not be weakened, protecting vital prairie wetlands and maintaining the important coalition of crop insurance, commodity and conservation groups established prior to the 2014 Farm Bill. DU strongly supports maintaining conservation compliance.

With conservation compliance in place, many highly productive wetlands will continue to be protected. 



ACEP - Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE)

The continental United States has lost more than 50 percent of its wetlands and continues to lose these habitats at an alarming rate. One of the most successful federal conservation programs is the Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) program under the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).  


ACEP is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and is the federal government's largest wetlands restoration program. It is a voluntary, non-regulatory, incentive-based way for private landowners, farmers and ranchers to protect and restore agricultural lands and wetlands on their property, providing societal benefits for improved water quality and quantity, reduced flood damage and enhanced wildlife habitat. Through ACEP, producers can enroll land in either the Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) or Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) programs. These easements are highly popular with private producers and are an effective risk management tool for protecting lives and properties from natural disasters, as well as conserving key waterfowl habitats in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, Gulf Coast, Chesapeake Bay watershed, Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes, Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), Central Valley of California and many other areas across the nation.   


ACEP-WRE not only restores previously converted wetlands to their natural state, but the program also provides landowners and producers with a financially viable alternative to farming marginal land with low profits while reducing burdensome expenses for producers and taxpayers alike. 


Success of the Program


Since 1998, Ducks Unlimited has partnered with NRCS in reforestation and hydrology restoration activities in Louisiana, including the reforestation of bottomland hardwoods on 52,000 acres enrolled in the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP, now known as WRE). Prior to the WRP, an estimated 80 percent of these bottomland hardwood wetland forests were converted. Restoring the forest and hydrology provides valuable moist-soil habitat for wintering habitat.


With Louisiana being one of the most intensively farmed regions in the nation, WRE projects and the restoration of bottomland hardwood forest ecosystems ultimately filter out sediment, nutrients and farm runoff that would otherwise end up in the Mississippi River.   


2023 Farm Bill


As Congress begins working on the 2023 Farm Bill, Ducks Unlimited is advocating an increase in ACEP funding levels to match the success and high demand of the program. In fiscal year 2020, southern states including Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee received 915 ACEP-WRE applications. Unfortunately, the demand was not met and only 80 applications were funded. An increase in funding for ACEP will be needed in the 2023 Farm Bill to close the funding gap with this demand. Such a funding increase would ensure that ACEP continues to provide vital waterfowl habitat across the United States. 

DU is also advocating for the enhancement of grazing opportunities on ACEP-WRE to promote grazing as a management tool. Studies show that grazing stimulates root growth, increases vegetal species diversity and strengthens organic matter in the underlying soils of wetlands. Such flexibility for grazing would ensure vital waterfowl habitat across the United States, from the breeding grounds of the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) to wintering and migration habitats in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley and Great Lakes.  


Additionally, DU supports promoting stewardship opportunities on WRE. With approximately 3 million acres of private land enrolled in WRE, we cannot afford to leave the stewardship needs of these acres unaccounted for. Stewardship efforts need to be considered equal to acquisition and restoration to ensure these valuable investments throughout their ecological and hydrological succession.


The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is one of the largest conservation programs within the Farm Bill. It helps producers maintain working agricultural lands and improve farm infrastructure like fencing, water irrigation, post-harvest flooding and more. Post-harvest flooding uses water to decompose remaining crop waste after it is harvested. This is especially used in partnership with rice farmers in key portions of the Pacific, Mississippi and Central flyways. Using these kinds of conservation practices can lead to cleaner water, healthier soil and better wildlife habitat.

EQIP demonstrates that agricultural production and wetland conservation are compatible. These sustainable practices are voluntary, incentive-based and valuable to producers.

By leveraging federal, state and private resources, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), DU and other partners are working to keep recently expired Conservation Reserve Program land in grass cover by offering producers a variety of EQIP incentives that conserve and enhance productive rangelands and wildlife habitat. These efforts will not only conserve valuable upland cover for nesting waterfowl and other wildlife, but also help maintain a healthy ranching economy on the prairies.

Migratory Bird Resurgence Initiative

In the 2018 Farm Bill, wildlife practices like carrying out post-harvest flooding or maintaining the hydrology of temporary and seasonal small wetlands (two acres or less) were highlighted to promote the success of conserving 24,000 acres of grassland in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) and the thousands of acres of enhanced migratory bird habitat in rice producing states.

Due to the success we've seen through conservation efforts in the Prairie Pothole Region and in key waterfowl wintering states, Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl and The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership are proposing USDA fund the Migratory Bird Resurgence Initiative (MBRI) through the EQIP Working Lands for Wildlife program. This initiative would be a voluntary, incentive-based national[PW1]   program to enhance critical food and habitat for migratory birds in the prairies and in key portions of the Pacific, Mississippi and Central Flyways.

Overall, the goal of the Initiative would be to voluntarily enroll 366,276 acres of small wetlands in the PPR and flood 500,000 acres on post-harvest flooding working landscapes. This would occur in two parts. First, through the conservation of nearly 57 percent of all remaining temporary and seasonal wetlands two acres or less in the PPR. This will maintain waterfowl and migratory bird habitat on working cropland. Second, through post-harvest flooding on cropland in California’s Central Valley and in Mississippi and Central Flyways, which will establish temporary habitat and rest areas for migrating birds. 

More than 200 species of migratory birds use the PPR for breeding. These depressional wetlands have many functions including reducing flooding, filtering precipitation, sequestering carbon and assimilating nutrients. The estimated increase in carbon storage from enrolling these PPR acres is nearly 9.5 million tons. It has also been estimated that post-harvest flooding areas cut nutrient runoff almost in half. The economy will benefit from these ecosystem services as well as recreational opportunities generated.

To learn more about EQIP and DU’s working with producers, private landowners and other partners on implementing Farm Bill conservation programs in high-priority areas, click here.

Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) 

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is a Farm Bill program delivered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). RCPP was designed to leverage public and private contributions to address natural resource concerns in targeted geographies. Immediately, Ducks Unlimited (DU) conservation and policy staff recognized opportunities to use RCPP to achieve goals in DU’s conservation priority areas, including the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) and in the six rice-producing states.

The Prairie Pothole Region is DU’s highest priority landscape because of its importance to breeding waterfowl. Recognizing that much of this landscape is privately owned and used for agriculture, DU focuses on working-lands conservation as a way to retain critically important habitats and to sustain working farms and ranches.  

Success Stories

Starting in Jun 2022, DU leads a new partnership with NRCS to help farmers and ranchers improve soil health, restore grasslands and improve rotational livestock grazing infrastructure in eastern South Dakota.

The project will enable the integration of cover crops and small grains into reduced tillage cropping systems and the restoration of large tracts of native grassland. Livestock grazing infrastructure assistance for things like fencing and water development will also be provided through financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers.

Other great success stories include RCPP projects through the Rice Stewardship Partners in rice-producing states like Mississippi. 

The Walt family enrolled their Mississippi farm in an RCPP to help with production and resource management. The production switched to surface water irrigation to help with cost savings and planted row rice instead of seed rice to help streamline the operations and lower carbon emissions. Implementing these practices not only supports the rice industry, but it also provides quality migratory bird habitat.

2023 Farm Bill

Farm bill programs are set to expire on Oct. 1, 2023, and Ducks Unlimited is working with agriculture stakeholders and our conservation partners to enhance RCPP. DU advocates for a streamlined application process that provides guidance on developing agreements under the traditional NRCS grant process, while reducing the administrative burdens on program participants. 


Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a voluntary, incentive-based program available to agricultural producers and landowners who need a financially viable option to enroll marginal cropland. Administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), farmers and ranchers who remove environmentally sensitive land from production and promote environmental and operational sustainability are rewarded with an annual rental rate along with other incentives. Most of the land enrolled in CRP on the prairies consists of restored grassland interspersed with numerous wetlands and the contract period is typically 10-15 years. 

CRP is the greatest ally in preserving habitat for hunting and fishing on private lands. Since its inception, CRP has aided in planting more than 170,000 miles of trees and grasses to protect downstream fish habitat as well as devoting 440,000 acres to pollinator recovery. Game species like turkeys, quail, pheasants, deer and others are all seeing positive impacts from quality habitat in CRP acres.  During the program's peak enrollment, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates CRP land in the Prairie Pothole Region was credited with adding an estimated 2 million ducks to the fall flight each year. Hunters and anglers rely on CRP lands in the hands of farmers, ranchers and other landowners to provide access to these growing populations of game animals. 

Grazing is essential to CRP for economic stability. Grassland CRPs, which make grasslands healthier and still pay landowners an annual payment, create opportunities for local ranchers to generate forage through grazing practices. In the Great Plains, 95 percent of the grasslands Ducks Unlimited restores and enhances are grazed. 


In 2021, Ducks Unlimited was awarded $3.2 million to lead a collaborative USDA study to help scientists assess the climate change mitigation potential of wetland restoration through CRP. The study focuses on climate benefits to restoring drained wetlands across 15 states in the Central U.S. 

2023 Farm Bill

Ducks Unlimited is looking forward to discussions about the rapidly approaching 2023 Farm Bill. Where CRP is concerned, DU supports:

To learn more, read DU’s CRP core principles.