With the enactment of the Agriculture Act of 2014, known to most of us as the Farm Bill, landowners have more certainty about the availability of federal funds for conservation on farm and ranch lands. The Farm Bill provides up to $57 billion dollars over the next five years to support a variety of rural land conservation activities, including the dedication of conservation easements, and eliminates some of the complexity of the varied conservation programs.
In the past, Texas landowners have been able to use Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation easement programs to permanently protect and enhance their lands benefiting both agricultural productivity and the environment. The new Farm Bill combines a variety of previous programs such as the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, the Grasslands Reserve Program, and the Healthy Forest Reserve Program, into the Agricultural Lands Easement program. Landowners will no longer be faced with having to decipher which easement program works best for them. The Farm Bill also makes funding for the Agricultural Lands Easement program permanent, protecting landowner options going forward. For example, if Congress failed to pass a new farm bill five years from now, a level of funding would continue so that farmers and ranchers would not be barred from enrolling new acres into the conservation programs as they were in 2013.
The Farm Bill provides nearly 2 billion dollars for both the Agricultural Lands Easement program and the Wetlands Reserve Program over the next 5 years, but the Farm Bill does not specifically apportion money between the two programs. Having this funding available for Agricultural Land Easements is good news for owners of rural land and for the conservation community. There is concern, however, that the budget for conservation is tightening because overall annual funding for this program is less than what Congress provided in the last farm bill cycle and because sequester-related cuts are still possible. These contingencies mean we have to continue to communicate to NRCS and Congress the importance of the easement programs to landowners.
In addition to restructuring the NRCS conservation programs, the Farm bill simplifies the financial eligibility requirements for participating in the conservation programs. Starting with fiscal year 2015, farmers and ranchers with an adjusted gross income of up to $900,000 per person or legal entity (or $1.8M per married couple) may qualify for the conservation programs. Distinctions related to farm and non-farm income are eliminated, allowing more ease in determining eligibility. Since 1985, NRCS conservation programs, including conservation easement programs, have provided financial support to farmers and ranchers who seek to preserve and manage portions of their land in a way that improves the environment. This long-anticipated passage of the new Farm Bill will maintain access to this support in the coming years.