The United States Senate Agriculture Committee completed its proposal for the 2012 farm bill on April 26. The bill will now move forward for consideration by the full Senate, possibly later this month.
The farm bill provides billions of dollars in funding for conservation programs on agricultural land, and for Iowa, a state with more than 26 million acres of cultivated cropland, no other single piece of legislation plays as large a role for soil and water conservation.
Iowa also has an important role to play in the writing of the farm bill because the state’s two Senators, Charles Grassley and Tom Harkin, are both influential members of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
This year’s farm bill debate is especially significant because Congress is trying to reduce federal spending in many areas. The proposal the Agriculture Committee has now approved will save $23 billion over 10 years, but that includes a $6.37 billion dollar cut to farm conservation programs over the same time period.
OVERALL REACTION SHOWS MIXED PROGRESS
The need for cost savings has pushed Congress to look for ways to streamline and reform farm bill programs, and reaction to progress in the Senate Agriculture Committee’s methods for doing so has been mixed.
Craig Cox, senior vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources of the Environmental Working Group, questioned whether Congress is working toward “real” reforms. Cox criticized the proposal for shifting additional resources to protecting farmers’ bottom lines while cutting conservation and anti-hunger programs.
“A farm bill that cuts programs for the hungry and the environment to help finance a new entitlement program and unlimited insurance subsidies for the largest and most profitable farm operations should not be called a ‘reform’ bill,” Cox said.
But Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), was more optimistic, praising what NSAC called “historic reforms to commodity subsidies.”
“We applaud the Senate Agriculture Committee for including common sense rules for commodity payments and ending years of abuse by closing program loopholes,” Hoefner said. “Thanks to Senator Grassley’s tireless leadership, the Committee was able to make sure that hardworking farmers—not mega farms and absentee investors—are the key beneficiaries of farm programs.”
SOME PROGRESS ON ‘CONSERVATION COMPLIANCE’
In 1985, American taxpayers and farmers entered into a contract to provide a safety net for the country’s food producers in return for protection of critical natural resources. Known as “conservation compliance,” this policy requires farmers to follow conservation plans that limit soil erosion on highly erodible land as well as preventing destruction of wetlands and native grasslands. Farmers who willfully violate their conservation plans risk losing taxpayer funded benefits.
Taxpayer-funded subsidies for crop insurance are not currently linked to conservation compliance, and because insurance premium subsidies are becoming an increasingly important part of the taxpayer-funded safety net for farmers, many conservation groups including the Iowa Environmental Council believe connecting the subsidies to basic conservation expectations is critical.
The Senate took one important step toward this goal by adopting a nationwide “Sodsaver” provision protecting grasslands and native prairies which have not yet been farmed. The provision would reduce available crop insurance subsidies by half and prohibit other farm program payments for any native prairie or grassland a farmer puts into production.
“By agreeing to a nationwide ‘Sodsaver’ provision… the Senate Agriculture Committee made sure that taxpayer dollars are not subsidizing the destruction of native grass and prairie lands,” said Hoefner. “These lands are diminishing at a rapid rate and protecting them provides ranching opportunities and economic, environmental, and recreational benefits to rural communities.”
Protections for native grasslands are only part of the action Congress must take on conservation compliance. The Iowa Environmental Council will continue efforts with partners to include these protections in the final farm bill.
“The Committee has acted to limit insurance subsidies for farmers who put native prairie or grasslands into production, and we are hopeful they will also apply this standard in cases where farmers drain wetlands or farm highly erodible land without sufficient conservation practices,” said Susan Heathcote, Iowa Environmental Council water program director.
“In all three of these areas, taxpayers should not help pay insurance premiums for practices that degrade the long-term health of our natural resources,” she added. “We hope Congress will recognize the need for these common-sense conservation protections.”
CONSERVATION RESERVE PROGRAM LIKELY TO SHRINK
The Senate Agriculture Committee also agreed to reduce the number of acres protected by the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) from 32 million to 25 million acres nationwide.
Conservation experts have argued that such a reduction only recognizes a decline in protected land that is already happening because of current market conditions. As Heathcote wrote in a Des Moines Register op-ed in January, “farming is a business, and with recent record-breaking corn and soybean prices, farmers have a strong financial incentive to put expiring CRP land back under the plow.”
Other changes to the CRP program approved in the Senate bill will help counter some of the impact of declining enrollment, including:
- doubling the funding for the CRP Transition Incentives Program, which helps to incentivize the sale or lease of land leaving the CRP program to a beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer who agrees to manage the land with a conservation plan.
- allowing grasslands to be enrolled in CRP under certain conditions
- relaxing some restrictions on livestock grazing on CRP land for beginning farmers
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is providing extensive analysis of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s version of the farm bill. See this post for more information on Sodsaver and conservation compliance, and this post for information on other conservation programs, including more details on CRP.