Navigating the 2023 Farm Bill

Irrigation infrastructure is critical infrastructure and should be treated as such, according to the Irrigation Association’s vice president of advocacy and public affairs.
BY LUKE REYNOLDS

The farm bill is an omnibus, multiyear bill that supports vital programs in agriculture and social welfare in America. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, the farm bill “provides an opportunity for policymakers to comprehensively and periodically address agricultural and food issues.” The legislative package is renewed every five years, and there have been 18 bills passed since its inception in the 1930s.

The Irrigation Association develops priorities around the bill every renewal to articulate the essential place irrigation has in the agriculture sector and to advocate for the industry.

“It’s a vital part of what we do here at the IA,” says Nathan Bowen, advocacy and public affairs vice president at the Irrigation Association. “The farm bill sets the tone for the next five years in terms of funding, education, infrastructure and several social welfare programs that have a tremendous impact on the agriculture industry, rural America and the irrigation industry.”

The 2018 bill was divided into 12 titles ranging from commodities to crop insurance. The 10-year score for the 2018 farm bill was budget-neutral according to the Congressional Research Service, and program outlays were projected to remain at $867 billion over FY2019-FY2028. The May 2023 Congressional Budget Office baseline for the farm bill put the 10-year baseline FY2024-FY2033 at nearly $1.5 trillion.

Here’s what you need to know about the Irrigation Association’s key priorities and why they should matter to you, whether you’re a grower, policy enthusiast or an industry stakeholder.

EQIP and conservation programs: More than just acronyms

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program is a beacon for growers looking to sustainably manage their water resources. The IA’s recommendations place a strong emphasis on enhancing EQIP. From advocating for increased funding to expanding eligibility criteria, the IA aims to make EQIP more accessible and efficient for farmers.

IA priorities:

  • Prioritize irrigation efficiency and water resource management across U.S. Department of Agriculture programs and recognize that irrigation efficiency provides multiple conservation benefits such as energy efficiency, water quality improvements and soil health.
  • Increase EQIP funding available to producers. Demand for EQIP resources far outstrips available funding. Additional funding will help producers make needed investments in addressing water-related conservation priorities.
  • Allow new irrigation system EQIP eligibility to help farmers increase productivity while better managing risk. EQIP currently only allows operations that have irrigated two out of the last five years to be eligible for the program. Providing increased EQIP eligibility to new irrigators will increase productivity while helping producers better manage risk and reduce reliance on disaster assistance and crop insurance.
  • Orient EQIP cost-share opportunities toward using water effectively and increasing productivity and profitably in a regional context. EQIP should encourage water savings as part of cropping systems and rotations that increase yield per volume of water applied, produce high-quality crops and improve profit potential as a result of input and labor savings. As farmers utilize water resources more efficiently, they should have the flexibility to determine how best to leverage those water savings.
  • Incentivize advanced irrigation management that leads to multiple environmental benefits. EQIP contracts should be configured to encourage, support and recognize these multiple benefits such as improved water quality, soil carbon storage, water infiltration and nutrient uptake, as well as reductions in soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Increase focus on irrigation efficiency gains from new tools, technologies and systems. In addition to normal equipment maintenance and upgrades, USDA conservation programs should encourage farmers to adopt new decision-support tools and technology such as irrigation system audits, water budgeting and results-oriented water management.
  • Enhance and improve the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to leverage partnerships with universities, conservation organizations and private sector efforts.

The Irrigation Association’s proposed EQIP modifications would have real-world, tangible benefits that empower growers to modernize their operations.

Learn more about the EQIP program through Irrigation Today’s feature, “Team up.

Impact on growers

Increased EQIP funding and adjusted eligibility requirements can translate to direct benefits for growers. The possibilities include updated irrigation systems, smarter water resource management and reduced risks during weather extremes.

These aren’t just hypothetical; they’re the real-world impacts that these proposed changes can have, Bowen says.

“Navigating the complexities of modern agriculture demands flexibility,” says Bowen. “That’s why the proposed EQIP modifications are so critical. We’re talking about real-world, tangible benefits that empower growers to modernize their operations. It’s not just about adopting the latest technologies; it’s about embracing a sustainable future for our industry, one that equips our farmers to ensure productivity while managing risks stemming from an unpredictable climate and resource scarcity.”

Building a well-informed workforce

Another priority is a strong focus on education and technical assistance. The IA recommends modernizing the Natural Resources Conservation Service workforce by adding roles like irrigation specialists. This modernization aims to bridge the gap between the rapid pace of technology and the skill sets currently available in rural America.

“In an era where technology moves at breakneck speed, the gap between what’s possible and what’s accessible to our growers becomes more pronounced,” says Bowen. “That’s why we advocate so strongly for educational and technical programs that can help growers keep pace. From private sector consulting services to modernizing the NRCS with specialized roles, our focus is on making sure that the people who are the backbone of this industry have the tools and knowledge they need.”

IA priorities:

  • Invest further in private sector consulting services, including funding for and improvement to the Technical Service Providers program. These services are critical for providing the awareness, training and background needed to overcome adoption lag and to help producers use these tools effectively.
  • Modernize the NRCS’s workforce by adding irrigation specialists, technologists and cybersecurity specialists in order to help producers adopt and utilize more efficient irrigation practices and technology.
  • Support much-needed high-tech career pathways in rural communities by investing in these private sector consulting services and NRCS workforce modernization.
  • Recognize the need for producer support that continues beyond launch and initial installation. To maximize conservation gains, training, troubleshooting and support needs for producers are ongoing, and NRCS programs and other technical assistance for producers must continue beyond initial installation.
  • Prioritize research related to irrigation and water use efficiency, especially related to producer adoption, driving innovation and needs associated with severe weather events and a changing climate.

Safeguarding the digital frontier

We live in a world where agriculture increasingly relies on digital tools, and the IA recognizes the urgency of closing the digital divide in rural America, says Bowen. But the digital world also comes with its own set of vulnerabilities, particularly cybersecurity risks. The IA prioritizes safeguarding digital assets utilized out in the field to ensure food and water security.

IA priorities:

  • Invest in closing the digital divide in rural America as producers increasingly depend on precision agriculture technology. Expanded rural connectivity is critically important for producers to be able to leverage available and emerging technology to ensure food and water security and to effectively address water resource management and conservation challenges.
  • Ensure that cybersecurity risks to the food and agriculture system are addressed. As producers and those supporting them increasingly rely on precision agriculture technology, we must ensure they have the tools they need to address these risks.

The 2023 Farm Bill is more than a piece of legislation: it’s the blueprint for the future of American agriculture, says Bowen. The IA’s priorities aim to enhance efficiency, boost education and secure American digital infrastructure, with an eye on benefiting not just the industry but also the growers who work in the fields and manage our water resources.

“We’ve laid out our priorities not as a wish list, but as a critical road map,” says Bowen. “It’s a plan that calls for smarter water management, a well-equipped workforce and a fortified digital infrastructure. Our vision is clear: We aim to foster an environment where our farmers can not only survive but thrive, even as they face an ever-changing landscape of challenges.”

Get involved

For the most recent updates on the 2023 Farm Bill’s progress, visit irrigationtoday.org. To see the IA’s full priorities for the bill and find other ways to get involved, visit the Irrigation Association website at irrigation.org.

Luke Reynolds is the content editor for Irrigation Today and can be reached via email.
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