A new Farm Bill approved by Congress provides $47 billion over the next seven years in fixed, but declining, subsidy payments for certain commodity crops, but also includes a wide range of environmental programs for participating farmers.
In a new Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the bill would provide $200 million a year to livestock and crop producers who undertake land management or structural practices that preserve soil and water resources. The bill also authorizes up to $35 million a year to purchase easements to protect farmland from development.
The bill extends the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to idle environmentally sensitive land, capping participation in the program at 36.4 million acres. The bill also extends the Wetlands Reserve Program, which pays farmers to restore wetlands, capping participation at 975,000 acres.
Also, the government would guarantee $200 million to clean up environmental damage caused by sugar growers to the Everglades, and seek an additional $100 million through the sale or swap of other federal property in Florida.
The bill removes restrictions on growing alfalfa and other forage crops for hay and grazing. Alfalfa adds nutrients to the soil that crops, such as corn or wheat, take out. Rotating alfalfa with other crops is a key method of "sustainable agriculture" - which aims to lessen the need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Under the 1990 Farm Bill, farmers also could use only 25 percent of their acreage for hay and grazing if they wanted to get federal subsidies for other crops. Farmers who practice sustainable methods say restrictions on haying and grazing have discouraged other growers from trying those practices.
The final version of the bill rejected a controversial proposal that would have exempted farmers from "swampbuster" penalties. Under Swampbuster, farmers who drain wetlands lose their eligibility for payments. Some in Congress had wanted to exempt farmers who drain wetlands that are less than one acre in size, or that farmed six out of 10 years, from the provision.