The Farm Bill & Opportunities for Water Quality

The Farm Bill, a massive and complicated piece of federal legislation that is renewed every 5 years, is up for debate and renewal in 2023. Waterkeepers Chesapeake invited Harry Huntley, Senior Agriculture Policy Analyst with the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, to a special convening of our Farmer Advisory Council and Waterkeepers. He lended his expertise on what the Farm Bill is, where it originated, and how to leverage the allocated conservation funds to support the health of our waterways in the Chesapeake Bay region. With some minor revisions, he explained that this bill could provide much needed help to small and diversified farmers and prioritize clean water outcomes across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.


There have been a total of 18 Farm Bills since it was introduced in 1933. The first bill was passed as part of the New Deal in order to aid in the handling of the oversupply of wheat and other commodities. Driving down prices, this forced many farmers out of the industry. This was compounded with major environmental impacts of farming manifesting in the dust bowl, further degrading the profitability of agriculture. The Farm Bill was introduced in order to assist farmers as they faced these challenges. 

Renewed every 5 years, the Farm Bill became a piece of legislation that allocates funding to increase food security and provide assistance for American farmers. In 1935 and 1936, soil conservation was added to address the specificities of the Dust Bowl. Harry articulated that “in the 70s during LBJ’s Great Society era, the food assistance portion was added. As the country was rapidly urbanizing, we created a beautiful marriage between urban and rural constituencies.” Nutrition programs make up 76% of the Farm Bill’s budget as allocated. The Conservation Title – the section most relevant to the current state of the Chesapeake Bay – was added in 1981. 

Current Issues

Since 1985, agriculture has been the largest contributor to the degradation of the Chesapeake Bay, particularly as it pertains to nitrogen runoff which results from fertilizers applied on farm fields. Despite the fact that the Bay has shown marked improvement since 1985 (thanks in part to gains made by a focus on the agriculture sector), nitrogen loads still exceed what is needed to meet 2025 goals. An additional 40 million pounds of nitrogen per year need to be eliminated from entering the Bay in order to meet these goals.

Although this is a widely recognized challenge throughout the watershed, there has been hesitancy for the states in the region to make the necessary investment. In fact, it is estimated that 90% of the remaining pollution reductions in Pennsylvania need to come from agriculture in order to see an improvement in the quality of the Chesapeake Bay. Experts estimate that it will take an initial investment of approximately $3.6 billion and almost $1 billion every following year to make the necessary changes to meet the 2025 goals in the agricultural sector. Harry sees the Farm Bill as an opportunity to cover much of this funding. 

The 2018 Farm Bill allocated 7%, or a total of $29.6 billion, of its funding to agriculture conservation programs, or about $6 billion per year for 5 years. This is the Title that Harry sees the most opportunity in. The Conservation Title funds are allocated to several big categories: working land, land retirement, land easements, and partnerships and grants. There are many programs that receive Conservation Title funds, but Harry focused on five main programs: the Conservation Reserve Program, The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

Conservation Programs

These programs, with the exception of the CRP, are getting huge additions to their funding through the Inflation Reduction Act. Ranging from $100 million to $3.4 billion per year, these increases will require enormous efforts to scale up the programs in order to effectively use the additional funding. [For additional information, read Harry’s blog series on the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act’s conservation provisions here, here and here.]

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) receives about $2 billion a year and about 21 million acres are enrolled. The CRP pays farmers rent in exchange for 10-15 year contracts that remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production, and require the planting of species that improve environmental quality. This can look like converting whole fields into grasslands or creating buffer strips and windbreaks.

The Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) provides $450 million a year of funding to permanently protect farmland from development through conservation easements. There are two parts to ACEP, the ALE which focuses on agriculture easements, and the WRE which focuses on wetland reservation. Through this program, farms are protected from development, which is important because urban and suburban nitrogen contributions to runoff have been increasing. Conserving farmland mitigates this runoff. Currently 0.1 million acres are enrolled in the program.

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is a $700 million a year program which shares the cost of adoption of conservation practices with farmers. This program focuses on the whole farm and funds both new and existing systems. These are 5 year contracts to cost-share practices with lower payments than EQIP. There are currently 6 million acres enrolled in the program.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) might be the most important of the Conservation Title programs. EQIP allocates $1.8 billion a year to cost-share with farmers for practices, like cover crops, and structures like terraces, which improve the environmental sustainability of the farm. This is on a field by field basis rather than for the whole farm. There are currently 11 million acres enrolled in the program. 

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is a $300 million a year program to provide funding for partnership building. About half of this funding goes to Critical Conservation Areas like the Chesapeake Bay, and the other half goes the Alternative Financial Arrangements. This is a flexible program which allows partners to fund any NRCS practice with USDA money and match. 

Opportunities for Prioritizing Water Quality Outcomes

Additional changes to the Farm Bill can further assist small and diversified farmers who might otherwise not receive funding. Crop insurance is not always viable for diversified farms due to big insurance programs that prioritize growers of 1 or 2 cash crops. In contrast, Whole Farm Revenue Protection makes it easier for diversified farmers to be insured for all crops. Another tactic would be to include a soil health discount. Harry explains that “healthier soils mean more resilience to extreme weather shocks, like flooding and drought, and less of a chance of needing insurance, so farmers demonstrating good soil health should receive a discount on crop insurance premiums.”

Connecting farmers interested in implementing best management practices with cities that need to make permit requirements could be mutually beneficial and consequently support equity. In order to prioritize water quality outcomes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture should have the ability to evaluate and report back on conservation initiatives. A Clean Water Outcomes Matching Program could also match states that purchase water quality outcomes from farmers for a set period of time.

The chaotic start of the new House of Representatives doesn’t bode well for a smooth and rational debate on the new Farm Bill. As committee hearings begin in both the House and Senate, many farmers and others are interested in a more equitable farm system that provides opportunities for improving water quality. They will need to be active participants in the hearings and will need to proactively reach out to our Chesapeake Bay representatives on these committees. This year is our opportunity – that only comes around every 5 years – to reframe Farm Bill funding to prioritize outcomes, not practices, to uplift and support diverse, small-scale and regenerative farms, and to move away from an industrial model of agriculture. All of which will ultimately result in better water quality outcomes. 

Blog contributors: Casey Willson, former Communications & Outreach Intern, and Rosey Pasco, current Communications & Outreach Intern at Waterkeepers Chesapeake