Conservation Conversations column: Pluses and minuses of 2018 Farm Bill
The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl spurred the first Farm Bill in 1933 and creation of Colorado’s 76 Conservation Districts in 1937. Under the original Farm Bill, the federal government purchased commodities from farmers to feed hundreds of thousands of hungry Americans that could not afford to buy food. The Conservation Districts represented a grass-root effort to ensure that similar environmental catastrophes never happened again by promoting wise use of resources.
Subsequent Farm Bills also recognized the importance of voluntary conservation programs that steward our natural resources. The Farm Bill provides the largest source of conservation dollars for privately owned lands in the United States. Key provisions of the Farm Bill include the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). These programs promote long-term soil health, efficient water use, and water quality improvements to build more resilient family farms.
The Farm Bill is reviewed roughly every five years to adapt its conservation programs, nutrition assistance, global trade provisions and crop insurance programs to changes in the food and farm landscape. The 2018 Farm Bill passed Congress with a rare bipartisan show of support and was signed into law by President Trump on Dec. 20, 2018.
At a time when the family farmer is facing challenges from global politics, climate change and urbanization pressure, funding for these important conservation programs continues to be cut. Conservation programs were cut by $6 billion in the 2014 Farm Bill. The 2018 Farm Bill maintained the 2014 funding level; however, it mandates future cuts to these programs, which will result in a $5 billion reduction in the next Farm Bill.
The 2018 Farm Bill did include some beneficial changes. Eligibility for EQIP has been extended to ditch companies, providing important cost share dollars for improving aging irrigation infrastructure and to improve water quality and water conservation. The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, works hand in hand with the Bookcliff, South Side and Mount Sopris Conservation Districts administering EQIP projects and Targeted Conservation Programs. NRCS and the Conservation Districts also provide technical assistance to producers.
Perhaps the most significant change in the 2018 Farm Bill is the legalization of industrial hemp production. It is estimated that the hemp and CBD (cannabidiol) industry could evolve into a $22 billion industry in the next five years. Hemp is a fast-growing, easily-cultivated variety of the Cannabis sativa L. plant, which was once an American agricultural staple. Hemp restrictions began in the 1930s to curtail marijuana use. Marijuana is a different variety of the Cannabis sativa L. plant and contains high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that produces psychoactive effects. Cannabis in general was classified as a schedule 1 drug in The Controlled Substance Act in the 1970s, effectively banning industrial hemp farming.
The 2014 Farm Bill differentiated hemp and marijuana by defining the plants by their THC content and created pilot programs for hemp cultivation research. Industrial hemp was defined as having a THC concentration of not more than 0.3 percent by dry weight. Under the terms of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp will be treated similar to other commodities. Regulation of hemp cultivation, possession, processing, sale and distribution has been delegated to the states to determine what they will allow within their jurisdictions.
Hemp farms will now have access to Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs including the federal crop insurance and farm loan programs. Federal crop insurance protects farmers from income losses caused by natural disasters and declining prices. FSA is working on promulgating the necessary rules and regulations to provide these services to hemp farmers.
The change in legal status will also allow hemp farmers access to federally funded conservation programs. As we have witnessed in the Colorado River Basin, conversion of hay fields to hemp cultivation creates many challenges including soil erosion, noxious weed control and efficient water use. NRCS is working with the states to draft rules for administration of these conservation programs, and it may be one to two years before programs such as EQIP are available to hemp farmers.
The Conservation Districts, in conjunction with NRCS, are currently able to provide technical assistance regarding soil health and noxious weed control to assist with these challenges in transitioning acreages to hemp cultivation. If you are interested in any of the programs that the Bookcliff, South Side or Mount Sopris Conservation Districts provide, or you need technical assistance, please feel free to visit our website at http://www.bookcliffcd.org or call 970-404-3439.
Conservation Conversations appears monthly in the Post Independent in cooperation with the area conservation districts. Sara M. Dunn is district supervisor for the Bookcliff Conservation District.