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Join our work today to help us build a thriving and just clean energy future. 

Why Congress Must Protect Climate-Smart Agriculture Programs in the 2023 Farm Bill

The IRA put $19.5 billion into USDA’s hands to support farmers with climate-smart agriculture. Now, Congress must protect it.

Bird's eye view of a green farm machine driving over dirt.

Table of Contents

  1. Executive Summary 
  2. The Problem: Rural America Is Facing Economic and Ecological Crises 
  3. IRA Investments: A Historic Downpayment on a Thriving and Resilient Rural America 
  4. What is the 2023 Farm Bill? 
  5. How Climate-Smart Agriculture and Conservation Programs Benefit Rural Communities 
  6. Climate-Smart Agriculture Conservation Programs in the IRA 
    a. Environmental Quality Incentives Program
    b. Conservation Stewardship Program 
    c. Agriculture Conservation Easement Program
    d. Regional Conservation Partnership Program
    e. Other IRA funding
  7. Conclusion



1. Executive Summary

When the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed in August 2022, America’s farmers received an infusion of conservation funding. Freshly equipped with $19.5 billion for climate-smart agriculture programs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is more ready than ever to support working farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners with conservation programs.

And this historic funding couldn’t have come at a better time. From the crop-damaging floods in Vermont to livestock-killing heatwaves in Nebraska, this summer’s climate-fuelled disasters have hit agricultural communities hard. Fortunately, the $19.5 billion in IRA climate-smart agriculture funding is already protecting rural communities from the impacts of increasingly severe weather events, while also delivering much-needed reductions in greenhouse gas pollution.

But here’s the bad news: Republicans in Congress are threatening to revoke vital funding for climate-smart agriculture programs in the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization. And that’s a problem for our farmers, agricultural communities, and climate. Losing climate-smart agriculture funds could destabilize small farmers and their families’ economic security, while rendering farms more vulnerable to severe weather impacts like flooding and drought. 

After decades of disinvestment, rural communities deserve a thriving, clean energy economy that will deliver jobs, justice, and climate resilience, not a backslide in support. Right now, Congress has a powerful opportunity to protect the $19.5 billion for climate-smart agriculture programs for the long haul.

This memo will explain these climate-smart agriculture programs, and why they must be protected in the 2023 Farm Bill. Together, these necessary, popular, and oversubscribed climate-smart agriculture funds deliver concrete economic benefits to farmers and rural communities.  

  1. Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) - $8.45 billion
  2. Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) - $3.25 billion
  3. Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) - $1.4 billion
  4. Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) - $4.95 billion 
  5. Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) - $1 billion, as well as $300 million to measure, evaluate, and quantify carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas pollution reductions from conservation investments. 


2. The Problem: Rural America Is Facing Economic and Ecological Crises 

Rural and agricultural communities play an essential role in America’s economy, producing nutritious food, energy resources, and raw materials for our nation. But decades of disinvestment have left America’s rural communities underserved and without adequate infrastructure. At the same time, the profits of large corporations have been consistently prioritized over the needs of family farms.

And now, this summer has clearly demonstrated that rural communities are living on the frontlines of the climate crisis. From the crop-damaging floods in California and  Vermont to heatwaves sweltering Wisconsin, Colorado, and Iowa, climate-fuelled disasters are already hurting agricultural communities. 

Let’s be clear: This is a matter of economic importance to rural America. Many of America’s farms, especially small-scale family farms, operate on razor-thin profit margins, and increasingly severe climate impacts are disrupting their operations and hitting their pocketbooks hard. 

This is also about protecting America’s food security and trade exports. Climate change is slated to negatively impact corn and wheat productivity by 2030. U.S. farms supply nearly a quarter of all grains on the global market, and climate-fuelled crop productivity decline raises domestic and international food security concerns and prices. What’s more, the increased frequency of heavy precipitation across the nation is expected to erode soil, deplete nutrients, and harm crop productivity. And climate-fueled heat waves are already threatening livestock health. 

At the same time, status-quo agricultural practices are degrading our land and climate. The agricultural sector currently comprises over 10 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. These harmful emissions stem from diverse sources. For example, over-using fertilizers on crops releases nitrous oxide, a planet-warming greenhouse gas that is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Livestock like cattle, sheep, and goats produce methane pollution as they digest their food, while manure deposits result in nitrous oxide and methane pollution. Together, these potent greenhouse gasses trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. 

In the midst of these overlapping economic and ecological crises, rural and agricultural communities deserve a thriving clean energy economy that will deliver jobs, justice, and climate resilience. As we wrote in the Evergreen Action Plan, the federal government must ensure there is a long-term reinvestment plan for rural and agricultural regions that secures a prosperous and resilient climate future. Such a reinvestment plan would allow working communities to preserve agricultural livelihoods, while growing innovative climate solutions and job opportunities.  


3. IRA Investments: A Historic Downpayment on a Thriving and Climate Resilient Rural America

Here’s the good news: When Congress passed the IRA last August, they anticipated the need for a thriving clean energy economy in rural America. Congress understood that climate-smart agriculture practices could support farmers in mitigating climate change impacts. That’s why the historic act included $19.5 billion in additional funding for existing climate-smart agriculture programs, the largest investment in agricultural conservation funding since the Dust Bowl. They also invested $10.7 billion in rural clean energy generation and transmission, which will help supply cheaper and more reliable energy to rural industries, while creating an estimated 90,000 jobs. 

And already, these once-in-a-generation investments are proving wildly successful. Some of the nation’s poorest rural communities are attracting lucrative clean energy projects that will bring jobs and tax revenue. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) climate-smart agriculture programs remain popular and consistently oversubscribed by farmers, landowners, and ranchers.  


4. What is the 2023 Farm Bill? 

The farm bill is an omnibus, multi-year law that addresses agricultural and food programs and policy. The first Farm Bill dates back to the 1930s when America was at the height of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl was ripping across the Great Plains. When the Agricultural Adjustment Act passed in 1933 as part of the New Deal, the intent of the legislation was to keep food prices fair for farmers and consumers, while preserving natural resources to stop future environmental disasters like the Dust Bowl. 

Today, the Farm Bill is a package of legislation that Congress typically renews every five years. This legislation governs policies related to the agricultural sector, including farm income support and food assistance. The most recent farm bill was enacted in December 2018 and expired on September 30, 2023. (It’s worth noting that it does not need an official stopgap funding measure until January 1, 2024.) 

Just as farmers of the 1930s required federal intervention to avert another environmental disaster like the Dust Bowl, modern farmers need federal support to help them conserve their lands and adapt to the cascading impacts of the climate crisis. But as negotiations for the 2023 Farm Bill heat up, Republicans in Congress want to cut billions in funding for climate-smart agriculture and rural electrification through the 2023 Farm Bill. Fortunately, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI, Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry) is actively working to prevent any efforts to remove the $19.5 billion in climate-related agriculture from the 2023 Farm Bill. Now, it’s up to Congress—and specifically, House Democrats—to protect this additional IRA climate-smart agriculture funding in the 2023 Farm Bill. 


5. How Climate-Smart Agriculture and Conservation Programs Benefit Rural America

The USDA’s additional $19.5 billion in climate-smart agriculture funding is already helping farmers cut down on greenhouse gas pollution at the source while also enabling farmers to make their existing operations more climate-resilient. Here’s why these programs are such a good deal for rural and agricultural communities: 

USDA’s climate programs are popular and already oversubscribed.

Application statistics show that USDA’s existing conservation programs are popular, beneficial, and oversubscribed. Take, for example, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Each program is regularly inundated with applications from farmers and producers. Last year alone, CSP and EQIP rejected more than 110,000 farmers. According to a USDA presentation in August 2023 and a recent press release, even with additional IRA funds, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) still receives more requests for EQIP, CSP, ACEP, and RCPP than there is available funding. That means farmers have been turned away from these vital programs due to insufficient funding, demonstrating that demand exceeds supply—and that this additional $19.5 billion is sorely needed

What’s more, support for these programs remains strong, with 644 organizations, businesses, and farmers sending a letter to Congress to protect the $19.5 billion in climate-smart agriculture conservation programs through the 2023 Farm Bill. 

Revoking needed funding for USDA’s climate-smart agriculture and conservation programs would be a mistake for working farmers, their communities, and our environment—especially when these programs are consistently in high demand and benefit all farmers and ranchers. (It’s worth noting that conservation funds benefit all farmers and ranchers—while reference price increases would only benefit the wealthiest farmers.) 

USDA’s climate programs make rural communities more climate resilient – while delivering economic benefits to farming communities.  

Make no mistake: These conservation programs aren’t simply oversubscribed programs with short-term benefits. The $19.5 billion in additional funding also provides long-term investments that will safeguard soil health, water quality, biodiversity, and climate resilience. 

Notably, Congress attached parameters to this climate-smart agriculture funding. They stipulated that the funding must be specifically used for climate change mitigation, or activities that reduce, capture, avoid, or sequester harmful greenhouse gas pollution. Such climate-smart agriculture practices are well-known among farmers and ranchers. They include planting cover crops, wetland restoration, reduced-till and no-till, nutrient management, prescribed grazing, tree planting, and more – with each offering immediate on-farm benefits. 

Climate-smart agricultural practices help farmers tackle environmental and water pollution, while also cutting methane and nitrous oxide pollution. For example, planting medium- or long-term cover crops helps sequester carbon dioxide into soils, while also trapping excess nitrogen. Similarly, planting native trees or shrubs sequesters and stores carbon, while helping prevent erosion. And cracking down on excess fertilizer through nutrient management reduces planet-warming nitrous oxide pollution and water contamination. At the same time, climate-smart agriculture practices can increase climate resilience during extreme weather events. For example, cover crops and no-till practices increase soil health and water-holding capacity, making crops more resilient to intensifying droughts or floods. 

Better still, climate-smart agriculture practices put money in farmers’ pockets. For example, lowering inputs of fertilizer doesn’t just mean less pollution—it also translates to cost savings for farmers. These savings are significant when fertilizer accounts for nearly one-fifth of farmers’ cash costs. 

The economic benefits of these programs are also far-reaching. The White House estimates that this IRA funding supports up to 280,000 farmers and ranchers with conservation efforts across approximately 125 million acres of land. 

We can’t afford to disinvest in farm operations, farmworkers, and rural communities that supply America’s food during a mounting climate crisis. Our food systems should be protected from the climate crisis, and shouldn’t unnecessarily contribute to it—climate-smart agriculture programs will help with just that. 


6. Climate-Smart Agriculture Conservation Programs in the IRA

Now, let’s take a closer look at the five climate-smart agriculture programs in the IRA. 

Funding breakdown for climate-smart agriculture in the 2023 Farm Bill.


A. Environmental Quality Incentives Program - $8.45 billion 

Many farmers are eager to adopt conservation practices, but the barriers to entry remain high. Because working farms often operate on narrow profit margins, many require financial and technical support to juggle conservation practices while keeping working lands in production. That’s where the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) comes in.

Since 1996, the voluntary EQIP program has provided technical and financial assistance to farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners to help them integrate conservation practices into agricultural operations. The NRCS enters into a contract with producers to provide financial-cost sharing and technical assistance for soil, water, and wildlife habitat conservation practices. 

And that’s the secret sauce of EQIP: It helps farms be more profitable in the long-term. That’s because EQIP frees farmers from making short-sighted decisions based on near-term margins, which often exclude investments in high-yield practices that take a longer time to mature. In this way, EQIP is bridge funding that improves overall profitability in the long run, while capturing large public environmental benefits.   

Certain EQIP practices, such as cover crops, tree and shrub establishment, nutrient management, and wetland restoration, have strong climate and nutrient-smart co-benefits. For example, tree and shrub planting can sequester carbon, while well-executed nutrient management helps reduce nitrous oxide emissions. 

The EQIP program has proved so popular, it’s regularly oversubscribed. According to recent analysis from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (ITAP), the demand for EQIP funding regularly exceeds supply, meaning the majority of EQIP applicants miss out on this opportunity due to insufficient funding, as shown in Table 1. The additional $8.45 billion for the EQIP program, provided through the IRA, will help alleviate pressure on this oversubscribed program. By protecting the IRA climate-smart funding in the 2023 Farm Bill, members of Congress can deliver real and immediate opportunities to more farmer applicants. 

Percentage of Applicants Who Applied For, and Missed Out, on EQIP Funding

 Alaska  56.76%
 California  76.47%
 Illinois  83.61% (Second highest in the country)
 Georgia  81.42% (Third highest in the country)
 Kansas  76.42%
 Maine  64.34%
 Maryland  60.84%
 Michigan  61.67%
 Minnesota  73.43%
 New Jersey  66.23%
 New Mexico  74.94%
 North Carolina  84.47% (Highest in the country)
 Oregon  59.1%
 Pennsylvania  80.21%
 Washington  69.24%
 Wisconsin  63.77%

Source: IATP 2022

In addition to protecting the additional funding for EQIP, Congress should also support the EQIP Improvement Act of 2023, introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) in the U.S. Senate, and Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-CT) in the U.S. House, which would prioritize funding for the most effective farm conservation practices and allow more farmers, particularly small farmers, to participate in the EQIP program. Congress could go further and end EQIP payments for practices that increase greenhouse gas pollution, such as land clearing or uncontrolled manure lagoons. 

B. Conservation Stewardship Program - $3.25 billion

Similar to the EQIP program, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) caters to farmers on working lands. CSP provides funds and technical assistance to agricultural producers to improve their level of existing conservation efforts. Experts from NRCS collaborate one-on-one with producers to create a tailored conservation plan that builds upon existing operations. As a result, producers are able to meet the goals for their operation, while benefiting from climate-smart practices like planting cover crops, rotational grazing, improving soil health, no-till farming, wetland restoration, and tree planting. 

The IRA provided an additional $3.25 billion for the CSP program, which remains oversubscribed. For example, over 3,001 applicants applied for CSP contacts in Minnesota in 2022, and only 8 percent were awarded contracts, according to the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy. Table 2 shows the oversubscription of CSP and helps demonstrate how additional IRA funding helps alleviate, but does not fully solve, this pressure. 

Percentage of Applicants Who Applied For, and Missed Out, on CSP Funding

 Alaska  80%
 California  48.26%
 Illinois  78.04%
 Georgia  86.03%
 Kansas  78.92%
 Maine  60.56%
 Michigan  32.6%
 Minnesota  91.97% (Second highest in the country)
 North Carolina  68.52%
 New Jersey  47.83%
 New Mexico  67.9% 
 Oregon  72.22%
 Pennsylvania  57.89%
 Washington  63.45%
 Wisconsin  65.68%

IATP 2022

Ahead of the 2023 Farm Bill, Congress should protect this new climate-smart funding. Congress should also prioritize funding greenhouse gas pollution reduction practices to better align CSP with climate change.

C. Agriculture Conservation Easement Program - $1.4 billion 

A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a government agency that limits the amount of development that occurs on a piece of land. Conservation easements prevent the conversion of farmlands, grasslands, and wetlands to non-agriculture uses, like housing development. As a result, conservation easements can preserve wildlife habitats, clean water, historic sites, and carbon-storing grasslands and wetlands. Conservation easements also deliver concrete economic benefits to farmers. By donating development rights, farmers receive a significant tax reduction, allowing them to keep farming with lower taxes. 

The Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) pays landowners, land trusts, and other entities to protect working farms from developments, keep their land, and restore wetlands. For example, the wetland reserve easements support private and Tribal landowners to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands that have been degraded by agricultural uses. 

ACEP remains similarly oversubscribed, with only 29 percent of applicants selected for funding in FY23. As NRCS points out, this is because there are far more funding requests than available funding. Ahead of the 2023 Farm Bill negotiations, Congress must protect the $1.4 billion in ACEP funding. Congress could also go further and ensure that reducing greenhouse gas emissions or storing carbon is a condition of ACEP dollars.

D. Regional Conservation Partnership Program - $4.95 billion

Through RCPP, NRCS partners with entities such as state agencies, NGOs, and Native American tribes to provide technical and financial assistance to farmers to carry out conservation activities that are priorities for the local state or region. For example, the Nature Conservancy collaborated with NRCS and over 10 partners to develop the Grassland Strongholds in Colorado’s Southern High Plains, which uses RCPP funding to create conservation easements that help native grasslands sequester carbon. In Decatur, IL, Lake Decatur Water Quality Initiative has successfully collaborated with NRCS and 50 partners to help producers implement climate-smart practices to help improve water quality.

The IRA provides an additional $4.95 billion through 2026 and extends the program to 2031. Ahead of the farm bill negotiations, Congress must protect this funding.

E. Other IRA Funding 

To fully understand the scale of a pollution problem, one must measure it accurately. That’s why Congress committed $300 million to better measure, monitor, report, and verify carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas pollution in climate-smart agriculture and forestry. The IRA also appropriated $1 billion for Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), helping NRCS build out much-needed capacity, including time for staff to work in the field with farmers and producers to co-design conservation practices. 


7. Conclusion 

After decades of disinvestment, rural America deserves a long-term reinvestment package that revitalizes local economies, enables farmers to farm sustainably, strengthens community resilience to climate change, and bolsters U.S. food security. 

And that vision is already being built. Using IRA funding, for example, rural electric cooperatives are already ushering in next-generation clean electrification infrastructure. Now, Congress must protect long-term funding for climate-smart agriculture practices that will deliver real local benefits to farmers, ranchers, landowners, and wider communities. These collective IRA investments in rural America are mutually reinforcing, and knitted together, are a historic downpayment on a thriving clean energy future for rural America. It’s time to protect these programs.