Connecting crop insurance subsidies to conservation: An idea with merit

You may have seen two very different op-ed articles in the Des Moines Register recently about the issue of whether farmers should have to follow through with conservation plans for protecting vulnerable land in order to receive federal crop insurance subsidies.

Craig Cox, from the Environmental Working Group, spoke up first, arguing that it is fair to “ask farmers to take a few basic steps to protect soil and clean up waterways in return for the billions of dollars that taxpayers spend each year to provide them with cut-rate crop insurance.”

And Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, issued a rebuttal soon after, saying “crop insurance…must not come with big government strings attached.”

The Iowa Environmental Council’s position

We think linking the conservation plans to crop insurance subsidies is an idea with merit, because this connection gives farmers a strong incentive to follow through with their conservation plans.  There’s evidence to suggest that conservation plans really help reduce soil erosion, and those benefits matter.

We know that many Iowa farmers are working to follow their conservation plans, but in situations where that doesn’t happen, public dollars should not reward irresponsible behavior.

Because we think this is an important issue—especially with Congress set to negotiate a new farm bill this year—we want to explain our position a little further by making two points:

Available evidence reveals broad support among the American public—and even among Iowa farmers—for connecting federal farm supports to basic protection of soil and water.

In fact, according to a July 2011 national survey, 60% of Americans believe “farmers should meet certain environmental standards such as protecting water quality or soil health” in exchange for receiving “subsidy payments and subsidized crop insurance.”

And many Iowa farmers agree, too.  As Craig Cox noted, recent Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll results indicate 81% of Iowa farmers believe “farmers should be required to control soil erosion on highly erodible land to stay eligible for federal farm program benefits.”  And 66% of Iowa farmers go even further, agreeing that “farmers should be required to control soil erosion on highly erodible land regardless of participation in federal farm programs” (emphasis added).

Even the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation has signaled a willingness to consider the insurance subsidy-conservation connection in the past.  We haven’t forgotten the words of Craig Lang (Hill’s immediate successor), who was quoted in the Des Moines Register explaining why a movement emerged in the Farm Bureau’s resolutions committee to support the idea last August.

Lang said the resolutions committee suggested the conservation compliance working ‘as a way to prove to taxpayers that farmers will comply with conservation.’

He added:  ‘There was concern that without direct payments that there would be no incentive for farmers to comply.  We wanted everybody to understand that we would.’

The Register’s report (8/31/11) indicated that the Farm Bureau considered policy language stating “habitual offenders should not be eligible to purchase subsidized crop insurance.”

Of course, we also remember how the Farm Bureau’s delegates did away with this position the following day.

The Iowa Environmental Council believes enforcement of conservation compliance should be firm but fair.

In his op-ed, Farm Bureau Craig Hill played to fears about how connecting conservation to crop insurance subsidies could cause farmers financial ruin.  He has specifically highlighted the potential impact of heavy rain events like those Iowa has seen in recent years.

What Hill does not describe is the variety of safeguards meant to protect farmers from facing consequences for unforeseen events.

For helpful information on those safeguards, we suggest turning to the Iowa Soybean Association’s new 2012 Legal and Regulatory Guide for Farmers.  The document, written under the supervision of Neil Hamilton, a respected expert on agricultural law at Drake University, very clearly explains a farmer’s options should the Natural Resources Conservation Service find him or her out of compliance with a conservation plan.  (You can visit the relevant section of the document and read questions 9-13 for complete details.)

Specifically, under the heading “Can I challenge a finding of non-compliance?” the guide explains that a farmer can request a one-year variance to get time to return to compliance before losing eligibility for programs.

Such variances are available, the guide explains, when (emphasis added):

  1. violations occurred in order to address specific problems, including weather, pests, and disease,
  2. the failure to comply was beyond the control of the producer;
  3. the failure to comply was minor and technical in nature and had a minimal effect on erosion control, or
  4. adherence to the conservation plan would work an undue economic hardship on the producer.

And farmers can also appeal decisions they disagree with in a variety of ways, as the document goes on to describe.

Throughout this year, as farm bill negotiations continue, the Iowa Environmental Council will continue to speak out in favor of conservation programs that have produced significant benefits for Iowa’s air, water, and land.  Like most Americans, we believe that when taxpayer dollars support agriculture today, they should also maintain a healthy environment for tomorrow.

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