As Congress begins writing a new Farm Bill that will guide tens of billions of dollars of agricultural funds over the next five years, it will grapple with a difficult question: To what extent should certain regions get special treatment?
Lawmakers from the Bay region have introduced legislation, dubbed the Chesapeake Healthy and Environmentally Sound Stewardship of Energy and Agriculture Act, or CHESSEA, which would not only boost overall conservation funding, but steer more of it to the region to help meet Bay cleanup goals.
The region is not alone. A handful of other bills, largely representing farm issues related to specific parts of the county, have also been introduced.
These so-called “marker bills” are designed to alert members of the House and Senate agriculture committees about concerns in particular regions as they write Farm Bill legislation this summer.
The marker bills stem in part from the perception that issues affecting many parts of the country were not adequately addressed in past Farm Bills, which are written by agriculture committees dominated by members for the Midwest and South—regions that also get most of the money.
Indeed, when Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, introduced CHESSEA in March, he specifically said it was time the region got its “fair share” of Farm Bill funding.
Further, critics say that formulas used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to distribute money in its largest conservation program, the $1-billion-a-year Environmental Quality Incentives Program, unfairly skews where money goes.
A report by the Congressional Governmental Accountability Office last year found that dry rangelands benefitted from the formula, while problems such as nitrogen leaching were not significant factors in state funding allocations. The CHESSEA bill would specifically change the formula to elevate the importance of controlling nutrient pollution.
Further, critics say, the failure to target specific regions makes it difficult to show tangible results—such as improved water quality—because money is spread over too broad of an area, and trying to accomplish too many objectives.
Changes are not just being proposed by lawmakers seeking more for their regions.
The Bush administration, in its proposed version of the Farm Bill, calls for a Regional Water Enhancement Program that would get $175 million a year to improve water quality or water conservation issues on a watershed-based approach.
In the program, states, nongovernmental organizations, local governments and others could compete for grants from the USDA to achieve watershed goals. The aim is to get large numbers of producers within an individual watershed to agree to implement one or two conservation practices considered key to reaching the goals.
The organizations getting the money would have flexibility over what conservation tools they used to achieve the goals and could undertake such steps as increased incentives to boost participation rates. But the organizations would have to hit performance targets to be able to renew funding.
“Our emphasis is on watersheds where there is great penetration among producers who are willing to take similar actions to reach the goal,” said David Anderson, of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
But the program would focus on watersheds smaller than the Bay drainage in order to show measurable results, he said. “The size of the region should be manageable enough to be able to discern concrete improvements to either water quality or water savings,” Anderson said. “So with a very, very large watershed, that might just be impracticable.”
The CHESSEA legislation creates a similar “Regional Water Quality Enhancement Program,” although it would specifically direct funds to states that contain tributaries to large waterbodies that need to meet water quality goals, as opposed to other organizations or local governments.
The intent is to promote the widespread adoption of the most cost-effective conservation practices. The $200- million-a-year nationwide program would be awarded through competitive grants, but 25 percent of the money would be reserved for the Bay watershed.
At least three other versions of Farm Bill legislation that have been introduced have components that would allow increased targeting to address regional farm and conservation issues.
“There is a critical mass sending a message to the committees to please take these concepts seriously,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures, and has been active in promoting a Farm Bill that would help the Bay.
Despite widespread support, one impediment to regional programs will be funding. Lawmakers widely endorse more money for conservation programs in the next Farm Bill, but making that happen will be difficult because of tight budget guidelines. Under rules in the House, increases require lawmakers to find budget “offsets” by cutting other programs.
Some observers believe that it will be difficult for committees to write bills that give extra money to particular regions because it leaves less for everyone else.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, the ranking minority member on the House Agriculture Committee has said he does not support the Bay legislation even though he represents the Shenandoah Valley. “The resources are not available,” he recently told the Harrisonburg News-Record.
But Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-MD, said many members of Congress are increasingly unhappy that so much money goes to Midwest and Southern states without recognizing priorities of other regions.
Gilchrest is a co-sponsor not only of CHESSEA, but also of the Farm, Nutrition and Community Investment Act put forward by lawmakers from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. The bill boosts conservation funding and also creates grant programs to promote locally produced foods, increase the competitiveness of specialty crops and help farmers transition to new products.
So many lawmakers have signed onto various regional Farm Bill measures that Gilchrest said they could band together to seek amendments when the committee bills are voted upon by the full House.
“If we can’t get a lot of this in the committee bill, we can come together with a block of votes on the House floor to add an amendment, or amendments,” Gilchrest said. Lawmakers cosponsoring those alternative bills, he said, “not only want regional components, but a mechanism in there to more equitably distribute the dollars that go into these agricultural programs.”