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Farm Bill Debate: More breathing room sought for conservation

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Mike Moen

(Prairie News Service) Funding for a longstanding food-assistance program is at the center of the Farm Bill reauthorization debate. But there also are calls to make it easier for farmers in North Dakota and elsewhere to access climate-linked programs. The Farm Bill is updated by Congress every five years, and like previous attempts, lawmakers are clashing over funding levels for SNAP benefits, a key component of the policy. The bill also covers conservation programs, which offer incentives for farmers to adopt practices that make their land more resilient. 

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Michael Happ, program associate, Climate and Rural Communities at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policies said it is reasonable for some farm groups to want to make these programs stronger.

"A small farmer, stretched really thin, might not have time to fill out a 20 page application," Happ said. "We need to keep accountability in these programs, and we need to make sure they're not weakened. But it's not easy right now for farmers to access these programs."

Among its Farm Bill requests, the North Dakota Farmers Union wants Congress to increase flexibility for existing conservation programs and provide sufficient funding to meet demand, and Happ added accessibility 
issues at the state level. In North Dakota last year, fewer than 20 percent of regional farmers who applied for Conservation Stewardship Program funding were approved. 

However, North Dakota fared better in applications for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Still, Happ continued because there is a long gap between each Farm Bill, lawmakers have a narrow window to make changes as agriculture faces pressure to do its part in addressing climate change. 

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"If it turns out that we're not dealing with any additional funds, that we're [just] using the funds that we have, I think we need to take a hard look at where the money is going and how it can be better spent," he said. 

There are separate proposals in Congress to make improvements to specific conservation programs. As for the Farm Bill, Happ said there appears to be a bipartisan appetite for various upgrades. But some Republicans have signaled they would like to divert funding that falls under the conservation umbrella, such as extra support approved under last year's Inflation Reduction Act. The current Farm Bill expires this fall.