Policy Update: Rep. Brownley Introduces Two Climate & Conservation Bills - American Farmland Trust

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Policy Update: Rep. Brownley Introduces Two Climate & Conservation Bills

Yesterday, Representative Brownley (D-CA) introduced two new bills, the Conservation for Agricultural Leased Land Act (the CALL Act), and the Climate Agricultural Conservation Practices Actwhich were created based on agriculture and climate recommendations from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The CALL Act was written with significant input from AFT (read Rep. Brownley’s statement here, and AFT’s statement here).  

In June 2020, the House Select Committee released a set of policy recommendations for solving the climate crisis, developed with input from AFT’s Climate Initiative Director Dr. Jennifer Moore’s testimony before the Committee in October 219 (more background on the report here). Rep. Brownley’s bills correspond with specific Committee recommendations to:  

  • Provide incentives for farmers leasing land to invest in soil health and climate stewardship practices.  
  • Revise NRCS Conservation Practice Standards to increase consideration of climate mitigation and resilience.  

The CALL Act will address the complex interaction between land tenure and conservation. Currently, 40% of agricultural land is rented (53% of cropland), and while there is a general understanding that farmer tenants are less likely to implement conservation practices, the underlying reasons – and therefore the most effective solutions – remain unknown. The CALL Act directs USDA to conduct a study on the present state of conservation on rented land, and to make recommendations on the best ways to overcome barriers. In addition, the bill directs USDA to carry out the study with special consideration of farmers and ranchers of color.  

The legislation also directs USDA to review the relevant literature, specifically citing AFT’s recent report “Understanding and Activating Non-Operator Landowners.” This report shows that landowners care about conservation and are willing to partner with farmer tenants to steward their land. It also explores the importance of engaging farmers and landowners, including women Non-Operator Landowners, through targeted programming to improve conservation outcomes.  

Specifically, the Act directs USDA’s report to include:  

  1. A review of the relevant existing literature.  
  2. Identification and quantification of the various types of agricultural land leasing relationships.  
  3. Research on the history, and estimation of future trends, of agricultural land ownership.  
  4. Examination of what leasing models have been effective in encouraging the adoption of conservation practices.  
  5. Consideration of regional variations.  
  6. Examination of existing Federal conservation incentives, and the degree to which they are currently utilized with respect to leased agricultural lands.  
  7. Research on State and local incentive programs that encourage conservation practice adoption on leased agricultural lands.  
  8. Research on the benefits of transitioning from land leasing to land ownership on conservation practice adoption and Federal conservation program participation.  

The second bill from Rep. Brownley, the Climate Agricultural Conservation Practices Act, is a step toward integrating conservation and climate goals. It would authorize NRCS to periodically review conservation practice standards and evaluate the climate benefits of applicable standards, ensuring that the latest science is incorporated into these practices.   

For more background, below are the two House Select Committee recommendations that spurred the bills:  

Provide Incentives for Farmers Leasing Land to Invest in Soil Health and Climate Stewardship Practices   

Many farmers lease all or parts of their land. Leasing is a good option for farmers who are looking to start or expand their operation without coming up with the upfront capital required for a down payment. However, when farmers operate on leased land, they may not necessarily enjoy many of the long-term benefits and incentives for building soil health.   

Recommendation: Congress should establish a grant program for state and local governments to develop and implement a strategy to increase climate stewardship practices on land leased by farmers and owned by non-operator landowners within their communities. This legislation should also direct USDA to develop federal incentives for longer-term leasing contracts and climate stewardship practices on leased land, such as preferred USDA loan rates on infrastructure and equipment for farmers who plant cover crop or practice reduced-till farming.  

Revise NRCS Conservation Practice Standards to Increase Consideration of Climate Mitigation and Resilience  

Conservation practice standards are found in Field Office Technical Guides, which provide region-specific technical information about the conservation of soil, water, air, and related plant and animal resources. NRCS Conservation Practice Standards define a conservation practice, where it applies, and requirements for installing the practice. Considering climate mitigation within applicable Conservation Practice Standards will enhance climate benefits from conservation practices.  

Recommendation: Congress should direct NRCS to revise Conservation Practice Standards to include consideration of climate benefits within any relevant Conservation Practice Standard.  

About the Author
Emily Liss

Farm Viability Policy Manager


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