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(Article Summarized by Meridian Institute) The new farm bill passed this week takes the 23 voluntary federal conservation programs and pars them down to just 13 by combining many smaller programs and folding them into larger ones. Environmental advocates and farm groups hope the consolidation will make the conservation title easier to use. The consolidation also results in a $6 billion cut from conservation programs over the next decade, which wasn’t a surprise to green groups, but it is not something they were happy about. "We are certainly going to be celebrating this bill," said Steve Kline of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "I do think it's the best we can get." The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says the consolidation builds on internal efforts to make the programs more workable, as well as making the initiatives easier to navigate. Still, while the changes should reduce the complexity of the programs, some advocates worry less conservation will be occurring on the ground as a result. The bill, for example, while capping payments for organic farms under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a cost-share program that helps farmers make environmental improvements on their lands, increases the payment cap for traditional farms. Environmentalists worry that concentrated animal feeding operations could continue to receive big subsidies for constructing manure lagoons that have little overall environmental benefit. The bill also decreases the number of acres in the Conservation Stewardship Program, and lowers the cap on the Conservation Reserve Program. These changes are primarily a reaction to farmers leaving the program due to high grain prices, but environmentalists worry the program will be overextended as crop prices drop back down. "The conservation title reflects a vaguely permanent increase in crop prices that had made programs like CRP less competitive in the landscape," said Kline. "I'm afraid that in very short order that will be proven somewhat wrong."

Posted February 6th, 2014