USDA environmental programs are missing a key ingredient

USDA programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) help farmers invest in conservation projects to make their operations more sustainable. While focusing on how farmers operate, these programs don’t help farmers change what they produce.

This limitation is unfortunate, since transitioning from, for example, a dairy operation to a hazelnut orchard could cut hundreds of tons of CH4 emissions. But, under current USDA guidelines, this would be an invalid use of funds.

This is why AFA suggests that USDA offer farm transition programs that offer what we call ‘farm mobility.’

Without farm mobility as an aim, USDA conservation programs can just make farmers more ‘stuck’.

A Michigan dairy farmer working with AFA recently said,

“We did a $250,000 debt share with USDA via the EQIP program to stop silage leaking into the creek. The next five years were bad and we felt ourselves spiraling downward. It was just one more nail in the coffin. Now we have a significant amount of debt from trying to keep the farm afloat for five years, while we were going backwards the entire time.”

Michigan Dairy Farmers lobbying with AFA

This farmer was encouraged to pursue expensive conservation measures to keep their dairy herd. They took on debt to do the project, but in the end, lost the herd anyway. If they’d received funding to transition to growing human-grade food crops, they’d have solved the environmental issue and possibly still be in business today.

Half of EQIP Funding Must Go to Livestock Producers1

Other farmers, like Dan and Paul in Wisconsin are also desperate to change what they grow.

That’s why AFA proposes a new guiding principle for climate-smart agriculture policy at USDA, that of farm mobility.

One could argue that it’s both counterintuitive and unwise to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to help livestock farmers reduce their pollution. In fact, Charlie Talbert of Monona, WI, made exactly that point in a recent letter to the editor.

“Imagine other industries threatening to pollute our natural resources unless we pay them not to. That begins to sound like a protection racket. Dairy should cover its own pollution abatement and other externalized costs and recapture them with higher prices. That’s how the market is supposed to work. But that would mean a quick end to an industry propped up by taxpayers and the absence of environmental accountability.”

“Stop subsidizing the dairy industry” — Charlie Talbert, Wisconsin State Journal, May 7, 2021

It’s just a simple tweak

USDA should of course provide resources to help farmers improve conservation practices. But the USDA should also recognize that some farmers are desperate to transition to growing eco-friendly crops, and help them do so. AFA calls on the USDA to help farmers transition as a valid conservation practice to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, problematic runoff, and biodiversity loss. Read more about AFA suggestions for climate-smart agriculture …