Farm bill: Four key areas that will impact farmers, ranchers and agricultural communities – Part II
March 7, 2019
Editor's Note: This is part two of a two-part series regarding the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, or the farm bill as it is commonly called.
Previously I discussed how farming insurance and subsidies are shifting, and the agricultural industry is diversifying. Now, I'll discuss how the new 2018 farm bill is making changes to the way the farming industry treats the environment, as well as the landmark decision to legalize the growth of hemp.
CONSERVATION AND ENVIRONMENTAL problems
For the semi-arid climate of Colorado, Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain region, conservation and farming are closely related. Long droughts, intense wildfires and plummeting water levels have the regions farmers and ranchers looking for answers and ways to salvage and nurture the land, while providing for the growing demand for organic foods.
The 2018 farm bill implements several measures that are giving some conservation advocates reason for cautious optimism.
EQIP AND CSP
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The Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program are the nation's largest conservation programs. CSP provides financial assistance to growers who meet minimum conservation qualifications. EQIP, on the other hand, provides financial assistance to growers seeking to improve their conservation practices. Under the new bill, the USDA has been tasked with improving coordination between the two related programs. The goal is to provide much-needed support to farmers and ranchers who are actively seeking to improve their conservation efforts.
Additionally, funding for both programs has been preserved for the next five years, although the funding did not increase. This means that growers in Colorado and Wyoming who are on waiting lists for either of the programs may have to wait a little longer to receive support.
WATER QUALITY AND SOIL HEALTH
Various smaller initiatives, programs, and orders are also included in the bill that will encourage water quality and soil conservation.
The isolated farming communities of Colorado and New Mexico who utilize Acequias will now be eligible for EQIP funding. Farmers and ranchers who use the network of irrigation ditches can now apply for funding to make infrastructure improvements to continue to improve water conservation in that historically very dry but overlooked area.
The Regional Conservation and Partnership Program was created in the 2014 version of the farm bill and received a boost in funding this year. Ten percent of all RCPP funds must now be used for the conservation of drinking water sources. Farmers and ranchers in the Colorado River basin will want to take note as the water levels there have been low after 18 consecutive years of drought. Farmers in that area, and others, who voluntarily implement water conservation practices may now be able to receive funding.
The big winner for soil conservation is the funding of $25 million annually for growers who voluntarily participate in an on-farm soil conservation pilot program modeled off the Soil Health Partnership. The goal is to provide financial incentives to farmers who implement conservation practices that preserve soil health and improve soil carbon levels.
Ultimately, many are hailing the 2018 farm bill as a turning point for the agricultural industry and its relationship with conservation. Farmers in Colorado and Wyoming, both dry, drought-ridden states, may benefit from funding and initiatives that encourage a more environmentally friendly approach.
Consumers across the nation are paying more attention to where their food comes from and the demand for organic foods is growing from coast-to-coast. Growers are trying to meet the demand but switching from a traditional farming structure to organic methods can be costly. The new farm bill has a few initiatives that address this social shift and help farmers with the costs.
The EQIP, discussed earlier, also funds a program called the National Organic Initiative. The program's goal is to provide funding and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers who operate organically, or who want to make the transition. The new bill increased the payment cap to $140,000 over five years. This money can be used to improve irrigation efficiency, improve soil health and switch to organic-certified nutrient and pest management activities, among others.
Funding for organic research also got a boost under the new bill. Under CSP, there will now be $5 million in mandatory funding to collect organic production data and the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative received increased funding of $50 million a year by 2023, and $395 million in total funding over the next 10 years. OREI focuses on research, education and outreach to organic farmers. The programs goal is to enhance the organic growing industry so that farmers have sustainable practices and consumers have access to high-quality organic foods.
All of this should be welcome news in both Colorado and Wyoming. Between 2012 and 2015, Colorado's organic growing industry doubled in sales and nearly a quarter of a million acres of the state's lands are dedicated to organic crops, pastures and rangelands. The numbers aren't quite so high in Wyoming, but as the state struggles with the dropping price of conventional crops, switching to organic may now make financial sense.
HEMP AND CBD OIL
Last, but certainly not least, is the most popular four-letter word in the new farm bill — hemp.
Legally defined as a cannabis plant with no more than .03 percent THC, hemp and cannabis have not been differentiated for decades, even though hemp lacks the amount of THC to get you high. Since the 1930s, all cannabis, even hemp, has been labeled as a Schedule I Controlled Substance.
The new farm bill changed all that. Not only can hemp be legally cultivated at the federal level, it can also be transferred and sold across state lines. The bill will also allow the individual states to establish their own regulatory structures and guidelines, so long as they fall within federal limitations. Analysts expect the hemp industry to be worth $20 billion by 2022 and many anticipate that it will be one of the most high-value crops in production.
The most important aspect for farmers is that the new bill will allow you to grow hemp without losing access to federal farm funding and programs, including many of those discussed in this article series.
Colorado, of course, was the first state to legalize recreational and medical cannabis, so it was also one of the first to participate in test-pilot programs for hemp. Colorado currently has the most acreage for hemp farming in the nation. Now that farmers in other states will be growing this lucrative crop, hemp farmers in Colorado will possibly need to make some modifications to their processes in order to prepare for competition.
The more conservative state of Wyoming had no hemp farms as of last year as they struggled to secure funding for pilot programs. Many in the state are eager to diversify the ag industry with this crop, though, arguing that it could be a much-needed boom for the state. Wyoming's climate, like Colorado's, is well suited for growing hemp. We'll watch to see what the Wyoming state legislature does under the new farm bill.
Colorado and Wyoming may share a dry growing climate, but their politics are vastly different. The conservation efforts under the new farm bill will likely be a welcome change for everyone, though, although the cost is yet to be seen.
Hemp may continue to be a source of disagreement between the states, though, and each may take a different approach with the federal legalization of hemp. Colorado, as a trailblazer with the cannabis plant, may have to adjust to account for a boom in competition, while Wyoming will have to decide how it's going to grow to meet the social changes.
For farmers and ranchers in both states, and across the region, change is certainly in the air. ❖
— McDonough grew up in Grand Lake, Colo., and spent summers and holidays at the family farm in the panhandle of Nebraska. She has experience working with farmers and ranchers throughout the Rocky Mountain Region.