Farm Bill Drafts Reveal Varied Support for Soil Health

Posted on Thursday, June 27th, 2024 by Amalie Lipstreu
Cover crops and healthy soils at Full Belly Farm in Guinda, CA.

State and federal advocates, alongside farmers and ranchers, have been urging policy leaders to prioritize funding and support for effective soil health management. We have long prioritized the loss of soil due to erosion, a problem that still persists today, and there is a growing understanding of how important soil structure and soil biology are. Nurturing the pillars of soil health and managing this critical resource wisely will help producers be viable in the long term, require fewer synthetic inputs that harm ecosystems and, we now know, will help address the climate crisis.

The Need for Funding Soil Health

The Agricultural Resilience Act includes provisions for federal funding to states for soil health planning and program implementation. This comprehensive bill was developed so the next farm bill can help producers move toward greater sustainability, stop contributing to climate change and adapt. One of the provisions the National Healthy Soils Policy Network members have been helping to advance known as State Assistance for Soil Health (SASH) would create a new soil health grant program for state and tribal governments. While that concept is not completely reflected in the draft farm bill text we have seen, assistance for soil health is included in both Republican and Democratic policy language. That is a win to celebrate and illustrates bipartisan support for soil health investments.

The Impact of Funding Sources

The two proposals differ in funding sources which has significant implications for farmers, ranchers, and the climate. To grasp the current state of affairs, we must first revisit 2022.

In 2022, friends of agricultural conservation celebrated the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and its infusion of almost $20 billion into four USDA conservation programs. The IRA stipulated that the funding would be used specifically for climate-friendly farming practices. Since then advocates have been working to protect that funding and its “climate guardrails” as it moves into the farm bill. This issue has been a major point of debate since the 2023 Farm Bill deliberations began. 

The Republican House Leadership’s Farm, Food, and National Security Act of 2024 authorizes a matching grant program for States and eligible Indian tribes to improve soil health on agricultural lands through the implementation of state and tribal soil health programs.  Unfortunately, this version of SASH diverts funds from the IRA and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), while also removing the funding climate guardrails. 

On the other hand, the Senate Democratic Leadership’s Rural Prosperity and Food Security Act included SASH under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. This would allow states or tribal governments to establish or implement soil health plans. While soil health advocates had hoped for a dedicated source of funding for SASH as opposed to putting it into a public-private grant program, this option protects funding for the CSP, maintains the climate guardrails, and provides resources for states to support good soil health management.

Call to Action

As it stands, NRCS can currently fund fewer than one in three producer applications, despite the the major infusion from IRA funding. Turning conservation-minded producers away is counterproductive and detrimental practice for our climate.  Instead, increased funding for CSP is crucial and must be directed solely to the long line of farmers already waiting to enroll in the program.

There is uncertainty among even the most senior policy experts regarding the progression of these drafts before the current Congressional session ends. Nevertheless, advocates can still work towards ensuring that SASH remains a priority in this year’s farm bill or in 2025.

In the coming weeks and months, it is important to keep in contact with our federal policymakers, by advocating for the protection of the Conservation Stewardship Program and new funding options for State Assistance for Soil Health.

Organizations including farm and ranch businesses are invited to add their name to this sign-on letter to send this message to Congress by Monday, July 1st.

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