Though the most recent Farm Bill was passed back in February, few state and local agencies know yet how exactly they will be affected. However, one of the big changes in the bill was a consolidation of voluntary conservation programs as well as a slight decrease in funding to them. These conservation programs that have been utilized heavily in La Plata and Montezuma counties.
One program, the Conservation Reserve Program, which began in 1980, provides payments to farmers who choose to set aside land for ten years that has a lower soil quality. Program participants are paid for the rental value of this land by the government, making participating in the program a viable alternative to selling the land to a developer, or trying to grow crops on it.
According to Paul White of the Montezuma Farm Service Agency (FSA), who administers the Conservation Reserve Program, most local producers put their land into the program because the average age of the American farmer is around 70 years, and it would be hard to do much else with the land.
According to the Environmental Working Group, an organization that publishes subsidy information for various farm bill programs, CRP participants in La Plata county received $509,524 in payments in 2012. Nationwide, $71 million is spent in this program.
However, in the 2014 Agricultural Act, the cap on acreage allowed in the Conservation Reserve Program was lowered to 26 million acres, though some say that this tracks the decrease in the program due to increasing commodity prices.
White says that the decreased enrollment absolutely could be due to young farmers looking for commodity prices. However, he says that some farmers are sharp enough to know that commodity prices are volatile and the current spike in commodity prices, especially as a result of increased ethanol production, will not last, while payments from the CRP will.
Joel Lee of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Montezuma County agrees. According to Lee, though some producers might be able to make more of a profit on their land by enrolling in the CRP than farming it, there are lots of older farmers with no one to take their land who end up in the program.
Though there are a variety of conservation programs in the Farm Bill, two other programs are utilized a lot by area farmers and ranchers. These two programs are administered by the NRCS. One program, called the Conservation Stewardship Program, provides farmers and agricultural producers with a reimbursement for doing conservation work, as well as contracts for additional work to be done. However, according to Sterling Moss of the NRCS in Durango, this program does not often have many participants, due to the need for lots of records as well as the fact that it is a reimbursement program versus payment for a proposed project.
Payments for proposed conservation projects are done through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, EQIP, which provides direct financial assistance for participation in efforts to improve rangelands, irrigated croplands, forests and wildlife habitats. According to Moss, in the last few years over $900,000 has been given to La Plata County participants in EQIP, and they get over 75 contracts for conservation projects every year.
The same is true for Montezuma county, according to Lee. In contrast to the Conservation Stewardship Program, where only a few have applied in the past few years, many people are a part of EQIP.
According to Moss, the NRCS is still waiting to figure out how funding will change as a result of the new Farm Bill, but does not believe things will fluctuate that much.
Katie Fiegenbaum is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.