Farm Security and Rural Investment Act (Farm Bill)

Posted: Aug 31, 2010

The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2008 (the Farm Bill) is a long, complex law dealing with everything from farm loans, credit and subsidies, trade, energy, nutrition and research to rural development, forestry and agricultural conservation programs which amended the Food Security Act of 1985. Renewed every six years, the Farm Bill authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish and fund environmentally friendly practices on forested and non-forested agricultural land and to establish conservation reserves. While not specifically designed to support collaborative efforts, Farm Bill funding and technical advice can support public-private partnerships for conservation.

The 112th Congress failed to pass the 2012 Farm Bill, and at the very end of the session voted to extend the provisions of the 2008 bill until October 1, 2013.

Key Concepts

Eligible Lands

In the Farm Bill, "farmland" refers primarily to crop-rotation lands. It does not include lands that could be farmed or that have been farmed in the distant past. For the Conservation Reserve Program, for instance, farmland must have been cropped in four of the six years prior to the year of the bill's passage. The Farm Bill defines "working lands" much more broadly. Working lands include cropland, grassland, prairie land, improved pasture, and range land, as well as forested land that is an incidental part of an agriculture operation. Both types of land may be eligible for a particular conservation programs, like the Conservation Security Program. The 2008 bill included increased support for family-owned forests participating in the conservation program.

Applying for Benefits

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the Farm Bill and its conservation programs. Applicants to the program generally submit applications to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) or to theFarm Service Agency in the USDA.

To find your state NRCS office or the National Technology Support Center in your region, visit the NRCS web site or click on the map below.


Map courtesy of the Natural Resources Conservation Service
Click here to see a map of state-by-state allocation of benefits for several programs. 

Conservation of Private Grazing Land Program

The Conservation of Private Grazing Land Program (CPGL) is a voluntary program that helps owners and managers of private grazing land address natural resource problems while enhancing the economic and social stability of grazing land enterprises and the rural communities that depend on them. Through CPGL, NRCS provides technical assistance to owners and managers of private grazing land to voluntarily conserve or enhance their resources to meet ecological, economic, and social demands. 

For more information on the CPGL, see

Conservation Reserve Program

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is an offspring of the CRP. This unique state-federal partnership offers landowners incentive payments for installing specific conservation practices on eligible lands. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) protects highly erodible lands,providing cost-share, rental payments and incentives to farmers who restore and protect erodible farmland, farmed wetlands and riparian buffers. Under this program, farmers can receive up to half of the cost of conservation projects (50 percent cost-share assistance) and rental payments for ten to fifteen years if their lands are accepted during the standard "general enrollment" period. In exchange, the farmers plant resource-conserving cover crops. Farmers with environmentally sensitive lands can receive additional incentive payments for using practices designed to reduce wind and water erosion, including cultivation of grassed waterways, filter strips, living windbreaks and riparian buffers. The Farm Service Agency administers the program with NRCS providing technical land eligibility determinations, conservation planning and practice implementation.

Currently 27.1 million acres are enrolled in the CRP, with 5.5 million acres in the targeted programs that focus on damaged landscapes. For more information on the CRP, see the FSA CRP web site..

For a story on the uncertain future of the CRP program in light of current budgetary and financial pressures, see "Farmland conservation program may be plowed under," High Country News, 9/5/11. The USDA halted new enrollments in the program in September 2012 in light of budget uncertainties, but was expected to announce a new general sign-up for the program in February 2013.

Conservation Stewardship Program

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) provides financial and technical assistance to promote the conservation and improvement of soil, water, air, energy, plant and animal life, and other conservation purposes on Tribal and private working lands. This newly authorized program offers tiered levels of income support to farmers who incorporate stewardship practices on their working farms. Support payments are based upon the type of conservation practice and the degree of investment. NRCS is implementing the program on a watershed basis to reduce the administrative burden on both the agency and applicants.

In congressional hearings in October 2009, the NRCS reported an "explosion of interest" in the CSP, with applications pending for 33 million acres.

For more information on the CSP, see 

Environmental Quality Incentives Program

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the largest conservation program under the Farm Bill, provides funding to farmers and ranchers throughout the United States, to help them address a   of locally-identified natural resource problems. EQIP gives high priority to agricultural improvement projects that will help meet Clean Water Act water quality objectives. For example, EQIP provides incentive payments, cost sharing and technical assistance for conservation practices implemented in accord with a plan approved by the local conservation district. 

With an approved plan, EQIP may cost-share up to 75 percent of the costs of certain conservation practices and up to 90 percent for limited-resource producers and beginning farmers and ranchers.

For more information on the EQIP, see

Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program

To qualify for an easement, land must:

  • be privately owned;
  • be part of a pending offer from a State, tribe, or local farmland protection program;
  • have a conservation plan;
  • be large enough to sustain agricultural production;
  • be accessible to markets for what the land produces;
  • have adequate infrastructure and agricultural support services; and
  • have surrounding parcels of land that can support long-term agricultural production.

Designed to protect agricultural lands that would otherwise be swallowed up by urban sprawl, the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) offers farmers and ranchers 30-year to permanent easements to keep their land in production. Working through existing programs, USDA provides up to 50 percent of the costs of purchasing easements based on fair market value. Non-governmental organizations may hold easements under this program.

For more information on the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, see 

Fire Protection

The Farm Bill amended the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978 to allow cooperation between the USDA and State foresters to enhance community protection from wildfires. USDA and the states can work together to:

  • Aid in wildfire prevention and control;
  • Protect communities from wildfire threats;
  • Enhance the growth and maintenance of trees and forests that promote overall forest health; and
  • Ensure the continued production of all forest resources, including timber, outdoor recreation opportunities, wildlife habitat, and clean water, through conservation of forest cover on watersheds, shelterbelts, and windbreaks.

The Farm Bill also authorized a Community and Private Land Fire Assistance Program administered by the Forest Service and implemented through State foresters or equivalent State officials.

The Forest Service and State officials and private landowners can work together on:

  • fuel hazard mitigation and prevention;
  • invasive species management;
  • multi resource wildfire planning;
  • community protection planning;
  • community and landowner education;
  • market development and expansion;
  • improved wood utilization; and
  • special restoration projects.

Forest Land Enhancement Program

Title VIII of the Farm Bill of 2002 created the Forest Land Enhancement Program (FLEP) to replace the Stewardship Incentives Program (SIP) and the Forestry Incentives Program (FIP), which were both created under the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978. FLEP is an optional, voluntary program for non-industrial private forest (NIPF) landowners. It provides for technical, educational, and cost-share assistance to promote sustainability of the NIPF forests. Under FLEP, State forestry agencies coordinate with their State Forest Stewardship Coordinating Committees to develop a State priority plan. This plan prescribes how and on what lands FLEP funds can be used. To be eligible for cost-share payments, landowners must have a forest management plan. Cost shares are limited to 1,000 acres per year or 5,000 acres if the landowner shows that there will be significant public benefit from the project.

For information on FLEP, see 

Grassland Reserve Program

The Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) helps landowners restore and protect grassland, rangeland, pastureland, shrubland and certain other lands. The program - designed to restore and protect up to two million acres - protects vulnerable grasslands from conversion to cropland or other uses and helps maintain viable ranching operations. The program makes cost-sharing payments to help landowners restore or preserve at least 40 contiguous acres of grazing land. The program will also pay landowners for easements to voluntarily limit future use of the land while retaining the right to conduct common grazing practices; produce hay, mow, or harvest for seed production; conduct fire rehabilitation; and construct firebreaks and fences. Each state establishes ranking criteria to prioritize enrollment of working grasslands.

For more information on the Grassland Reserve Program, see 

Sustainable Forestry Outreach Initiative

The Forestry title of the Farm Bill also authorized the Sustainable Forestry Outreach Initiative, to educate landowners on the:

  • Value and benefits of practicing sustainable forestry;
  • Importance of professional forestry advice in achieving sustainable forestry objectives; and
  • Variety of public and private sector resources available to assist landowners in planning for and practicing sustainable forestry.

Wetlands Reserve Program

The Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) provides funding to restore farmed wetlands, wet pasture and range lands, flooded farmland and lands that border or link to protected wetlands. The goal of the WRP is to realize the greatest wetland functions and values, along with optimum wildlife habitat, on every acre enrolled in the program. Under this program, NRCS provides technical and financial support to help landowners with their wetland restoration efforts. Participating farmers may receive up to 100 percent cost-share assistance for restoration projects and payments for 30-year to permanent easements if the landowner voluntarily limits future use of the land.

Wetlands Reserve Program project site in Idaho
For more information about the WRP, see 

Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program

The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) is a voluntary program for private landowners who want to develop and improve wildlife habitat.Through WHIP, NRCS provides both technical assistance and up to 75 percent cost-share assistance to establish and improve fish and wildlife habitat. WHIP agreements between NRCS and the participant generally last from 5 to 10 years. By targeting wildlife habitat projects on all lands and aquatic areas, WHIP provides assistance to conservation minded landowners who are unable to meet the specific eligibility requirements of other USDA conservation programs.

For more information on the WHIP, see 

Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program

The 2008 Farm Bill included a new program to help communities acquire and manage locally important forestlands as community forests. The Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program (CFOSCP), which the U.S. Forest Service will administer, provides for local governments, tribes and non-profit organizations to get federal matching grants for full fee purchase of forestlands. The Forest Service is currently in the process of writing rules for the CFOSCP.

For information on the CFOSCP, see 

Farm Bill Reauthorization

Congress and the Department of Agriculture began working on passing a new law before the 2008 law provisions expired, but the end of the 112th Congress brought no agreement on new legislation. Instead, lawmakers extended the provisions of the 2008 law until October 1, 2013. In May 2013, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack said that he would make every effort to preserve the Farm Bill's conservation provisions in the face of congressional budget-cutting. See "Ag secretary seeks conservation commitment from lawmakers," Billings Gazette, 5/7/13.

For updated information and links to more detailed information on emerging elements of the legislation, see:

Controversies: Who Benefits?

According to Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, less than 20 percent of federal government farm spending goes to conservation, and a majority of farmers and ranchers applying for conservation assistance are rejected. Those applications that are accepted meet with approval only after the USDA has sifted through along backlog. Of those who are eligible for assistance, a majority receive less than $2,000 per year. 

To make matters worse, a majority of funding goes to large agricultural operations. According to Environmental Defense, more than eighty percent of federal farm spending subsidizes the income of large farms in just a few states. Indeed, the 2002 revisions of the Farm Bill removed safeguards that prevented EQIP, the largest conservation program under the Farm Bill, from being used by large confined animal feeding operations. Up to 60 percent of EQIP funds can now be used by large feedlots to build manure handling technologies. 

Despite these problems, recent legislation aims to get more money to more farmers. One 2004 amendment to the Farm Bill freed up more than $100 million per year for payments to farmers by preventing farmland conservation funds from one program from being used to pay the administrative costs of other programs.

 Click to download a .pdf copy of this publication

Defenders of Wildlife has evaluated federal resource  conservation programs to provide a baseline for comparison of current Farm Bill expenditures. The report evaluates four types of programs:

  • institutional mechanisms;
  • financial assistance for the adoption of resource conservation practices;
  • land set-aside programs; and
  • technical/educational assistance.

In the fall of 2009, the Obama administration defended its conservation programs in hearings before the House Agriculture Committee.

In April 2011, the Center for the American Progress published a report criticizing Farm Bill subsidies as "outdated, expensive, and inequitable," recommending that these subsidized be phased out and redirected to reduce the federal deficit. See "Bad seeds: A plan to phase out the $5 billion in 'direct payment' agricultural subsidies."

Farm Bill Legislation of the 113th Congress

For a complete list of 113th Congress actions on the Farm Bill, see American Forests’ Legislation Tracker.  See also the U.S. Senate's website on the bill.


Public Law

National Agricultural Law Center 
Full text and resources for all U.S. Farm Bills from 1933 to the present, including links to CRS reports and analysis of competing legislative proposals.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Farm Service Agency (FSA)
Established in 1994 to stabilize farm income, help farmers conserve land and water resources, provide credit to new or disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and help farm operations recover from the effects of disaster.
Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
Since 1935, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (originally called the Soil Conservation Service) has provided leadership in a partnership effort to help America's private landowners and managers conserve their soil, water, and other natural resources.NRCS employees provide technical and financial assistance for many voluntary conservation activities. 
For information on all NRCS Farm Bill conservation programs,
For a copy of the NRCS Manual on Conservation Programs,

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