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The 2024 Farm Bill is delayed in Congress, and conservationists are pushing to get the deal done. The legislation covers a lot of territory. SNAP benefits, crop insurance, and conservation programs are funded through the Farm Bill. It’s reauthorized every five years, but last year Congress missed the deadline and extended the current bill through this September.

Molly Parzen is the executive director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania. Her group is ramping up its advocacy around the new Farm Bill, and The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently talked with her about it.

Listen to the conversation:

Kara Holsopple: Your organization is doing a special push around the Farm Bill. Why now?

Molly Parzen: A lot of folks may have heard about the Inflation Reduction Act(IRA), which is an opaque name for a really cool law. This is a law that the Biden administration and Congress passed back in 2022, and it is the biggest, most transformational action to fight climate change and to invest in the clean energy economy that has ever been taken. It invests $18 billion through the Farm Bill in climate-smart, climate-friendly agricultural practices. 

In a lot of ways, this is one of the first legislative tests of the investments of these funds. So while the Farm Bill has always been really important, it’s particularly important for groups like ours this year because of all the work that we put in over the last few years to get the Inflation Reduction Act across the finish line.

Now we have to continue that work. Now we have to implement it and make sure that these incredible benefits that are going to be game-changing for our environment, for our farmers, for our communities, and for the economy are implemented well through this next authorization of the Farm Bill.

Kara Holsopple: From your perspective, what are some of the pieces of the Farm Bill that are important to conservation that could be vulnerable or are especially important, and you want to see funded? 

Molly Parzen: There are a couple of pieces that are going to be invigorated by this funding. These are programs like the Environmental Quality Program, land conservation programs and water conservation programs. These are frequently massively oversubscribed. They are popular. Farmers like these programs because they incentivize best farming practices that many farmers want to implement anyway. However, the demand for them has almost always outpaced the funding available.

Funding from the IRA is being infused into these programs that do things like help reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides and help reduce animal waste and the impacts of grazing. They reduce costs and reduce runoff from farms. That helps improve water quality. 

There have always been long waiting lists for these programs, but this $18 billion invested over the next ten years will help significantly increase what’s available. It will help make sure that farmers are able to access these programs and use these funds to do their job as kind of the original conservationists and original stewards of the land.

In fact, actually, these programs are already being used by Pennsylvania farmers because the Inflation Reduction Act was passed two years ago. However, there was only $5.7 million in funding available. So 45 percent of Pennsylvania’s applications for these proven, popular programs were rejected due to insufficient federal funds. There is a demand there that the federal government is trying to meet. 

Kara Holsopple: Can you say a bit more about one of the programs that’s significant in Pennsylvania and why? 

Molly Parzen: One of them that I like to talk about is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, often referred to as EQIP. One of the ways in which this is important in Pennsylvania is in some of our watershed basins. The Susquehanna and the Chesapeake basins have enormous issues with fertilizer runoff because of all the agriculture that exists in the center of the state. All of this runoff pollutes the Chesapeake Bay, pollutes our rivers, and has major downstream impacts on our neighbors as well.

So programs like EQIP, when they’re properly funded, can help farmers across the state make sure that they’re building the infrastructure on their farms that will help prevent that runoff, cleaning up our waterways and having real impacts on wildlife and the health of our water, both in-state and, downstream.

Kara Holsopple: So what are the obstacles to getting the new Farm Bill passed?

Molly Parzen: I think there are a couple of key obstacles. The first is the polarization in Congress. Historically, the Farm Bill has always been a bipartisan endeavor. When you think about things that can bring both sides of the aisle together, America’s farmers and their impact on the economy is one of those issues that it’s hard to argue with.

However, we find ourselves in a challenging moment in American politics where even things that have a long and storied history of bipartisanship have become partisan flashpoints. I think particularly because of the way Republicans have perceived the IRA to be an attack on polluters and an attack on big oil. The fact that this farm bill is going to invest those dollars has led to it becoming a more partisan issue. 

The only other thing I’ll add is that I think the Farm Bill right now is competing with a lot of other congressional priorities. Bills are languishing for international aid and some key things have been tough to get across the finish line that in another year would not have been so challenging. I think the clock is ticking. We are very focused on getting a deal done before we reach yet another deadline this fall because farmers, our communities and our environment need these investments.

Molly Parzen is the executive director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania.