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This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania, which is funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation. To check out the other stories in the series, click here

The U.S. Senate passed its version the 2018 Farm Bill on Thursday, and it’s a sharp contrast to the bill that narrowly passed in the House last week. The Farm Bill is a massive, $860 billion dollar piece of legislation, and covers everything from crop insurance, to land conservation, to SNAP benefits, which provide food assistance.

Pennsylvania Congressman Glenn Thompson (R-Howard Township), vice-chair of the House agriculture committee, is proud of the House bill.

“I was impressed actually,” he said. “That was the first time that I know in history that we’d be able to pass a Farm Bill with just Republican votes.”

LISTEN: “What the House Farm Bill Could Mean for Conservation Efforts in Pennsylvania”

Nearly 80 percent of the money in the Farm Bill goes to food assistance, and Thompson says he’s pleased with changes to the SNAP food programs.

Unlike the House bill, the bipartisan Senate version does not include strict new work requirements for people seeking food stamps.

The Farm Bill also provides tens of billions of dollars for subsidies and crop insurance. And, it doles out billions to help improve environmental practices on farms.

THE HOUSE BILL ELIMINATES A POPULAR CONSERVATION PROGRAM

The House also included cuts to conservation programs, which were spared in the Senate.

“What I think everyone needs to understand is that this Farm Bill, specifically the conservation title is really about clean water, clean air, healthier soils, more habitat for wildlife,” Thompson said.

But a review by the Congressional Budget Office finds that the House Farm Bill reduces total spending on conservation programs by nearly $800 million over ten years. Colin O’Neil is the legislative director with the Environmental Working Group. In a recent report, it found that runoff from farms is damaging drinking water quality in many states.  

“We know that the farm pollution problem is especially how it impacts water is only getting worse,” he said. “And we simply can’t be taking a step back and reducing funding for these valuable programs, which are already underfunded.”

Fertilizers, pesticides, manure and sediment from farms have been blamed for everything from feeding toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

O’Neil explained that a variety of programs funded through the Farm Bill help farmers adopt voluntary conservation practices to reduce runoff from their farms.

“Planting cover crops, putting in buffers around rivers and streams, and applying nitrogen more efficiently…all those in combination can really dramatically improve water quality, and the quality of America’s drinking water,” O’Neil said.

One program at issue in the 2018 Farm Bill: the Conservation Stewardship Program. It provided Pennsylvania farmers alone with nearly $8 million dollars last year, helping farmers who have already worked on environmentally beneficial projects, and want to do more to improve soil, air, and water quality on their farms.

Yet, the Farm Bill passed by the House this month eliminates the Conservation Stewardship Program. Congressman Thompson said the program is being rolled into the larger one, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

“We’re gaining some efficiencies, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.

That will still mean a net reduction in funding of nearly $5 billion over 10 years. Critics, like the Environmental Working Group, say the EQIP already turns away nearly two of every three farmers who apply for assistance.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker runs an organic vegetable, hen and sheep farm in central Pennsylvania. She’s also director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). She said while EQIP tends to focus on large, monoculture farms, the newer Conservation Stewardship Program has worked better for the smaller, diversified farms.

“Diversified farms tend to think that the Farm Bill doesn’t offer them much support at all,” she said. “So when there finally is a program that is helpful and accessible, and it gets eliminated, it just sort of reinforces that belief that the Farm Bill is not for me,” she said.

Smith-Brubaker and others are more supportive of the bipartisan Senate version of the Farm Bill, which maintains the Conservation Stewardship Program.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau represents thousands of farmers, including large-scale agricultural producers. Spokesman Mark O’Neill said that the state received $60 million for conservation programs from the Farm Bill just last year, but he isn’t worried about cuts in the House bill.

“We think as negotiations between both sides go forward, there will be adequate funding for those programs,” he said.

O’Neill said the Farm Bureau is pleased to see the Bill moving forward, because his farmers want to see it finalized before September 30th, when the current Farm Bill expires.

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Photo(top): Pennsylvania farmers received $60 million dollars through the Farm Bill last year for conservation projects. Photo: cjuneau / flickr