Federal taxpayers have an interest in the conservation of agricultural resources because of agriculture’s potential to both impose significant downstream costs as well as provide significant public benefits. Consequently, federal taxpayers spend nearly $5 billion annually on programs that financially support farmers and ranchers for implementing practices that improve water quality, increase wildlife habitat, or meet other public resource goals. To date, most U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs have paid landowners to implement certain conservation practices without tying them to environmental outcomes. To identify what works, however, farmers, landowners, and governmental agency officials implementing conservation programs must accurately quantify outcomes for conservation programs and adjust them to always improve performance.
Appetite for Measuring Conservation Program Performance
There is growing interest from agribusinesses, conservation groups, commodity organizations, and others to not only monitor and measure changes in environmental indicators (such as water quality, soil erosion, etc.) but also to tie future government payments to the achievement of certain outcomes. Programs that “pay for performance” (also known as “green payments” or “payments for ecosystem services”) may generate twice the conservation benefits as programs that simply pay farmers to implement certain conservation practices (such as installing stream buffers or terraces) without monitoring to ensure those outcomes are achieved.
In a tight budgetary environment where funding for conservation programs is stagnant or even declining, taxpayer dollars must be managed in a manner that produces measurable outcomes and the best return on investment. Taxpayers cannot rely on measuring conservation program success simply by the amount of dollars invested or acres enrolled. Rather, USDA must better inform taxpayers of the benefits conservation programs produce. As much as possible, evaluation should be done on the ground with actual measurement. Measurement needs to be tailored to the resource concern and the conditions in the field (or stream). It can take the form of edge of field monitoring to determine base and after application conditions or in-stream monitoring to determine cumulative effects. However it is implemented, the goal should be to gain knowledge of observable and measurable progress in achieving a resource concern.
Avenues to Improve Measurement
To date, no major USDA conservation program makes achievement of improved environmental outcomes a condition of receiving taxpayer-backed payments. Progress has been made toward integrating lessons learned and best practices into conservation programs to increase measurable outcomes:
- USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP)has been the largest multi-agency effort “to quantify the environmental effects of conservation practices and programs and develop the science base for managing the agricultural landscape for environmental quality.” Its reach, however, is still limited. Edge-of-field monitoring may also be funded through the Conservation Stewardship Project (CSP), through an enhanced payment. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), also funds such monitoring, but at only $2 million in 2016. Finally, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has a Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation Project (MAE). While it attempts to “quantify CRP environmental benefits to water quality and quantity, wildlife, and rural economies,” past studies have not been tied directly to on-the-ground monitoring and measurement.
- Regional Conservation Partnership Project (RCPP) The Regional Conservation Partnership Program, first authorized by the 2014 farm bill, is a program that can increase measurable outcomes. Through RCPP, NRCS, state agencies, and non-governmental organizations work together to provide financial and technical assistance to producers undertaking conservation practices aimed at tackling priority natural resource concerns in a state or region. RCPP pledges to prioritize projects that pledge to achieve and measure environmental, social, and economic outcomes. Funding is distributed through a competitive grants process. In this process, a project’s degree of innovation and ability to measure progress toward achieving goals are a ranking criteria. While RCPP funded projects are too young to evaluate for their overall effectiveness, a number of projects with similar characteristics were funded under similar USDA initiatives and documented success.
Improved measurement of agricultural conservation program performance will help ensure that investments in conservation achieve the greatest positive outcomes for both taxpayers footing the bill and farmers and ranchers implementing the programs. The Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act (H.R. 4751) is an opportunity to bring more accountability to conservation programs by providing USDA the resources it needs to improve voluntary conservation programs so they are targeted to areas of greatest need, tailored for and responsive to on-the-ground needs, and spent on the most cost-effective practices. The bipartisan legislation gives USDA the tools and authority to measure, evaluate, and report on federal conservation program outcomes so that they better serve family farmers, protect natural resources, and provide a greater return on investment for taxpayers.
Combined with better structured and targeted conservation programs, implementation of The Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act will help provide cost-effective, measurable outcomes that save costs for not only agribusinesses and communities, but taxpayers as well.