2014 Farm Bill: Advancing Conservation

The long road to a new Farm Bill took a positive turn when President Obama signed it into law on February 7, 2014. The 2014 Farm Bill contained many victories for the conservation community. 

The top priority for the Izaak Walton League – re-establishing the linkage between conservation compliance and crop insurance premium subsidies – was included in the final legislation. Conservation compliance was first enacted in the 1985 Farm Bill, creating a compact between taxpayers and farmers: Taxpayers provide a financial safety net for farmers in return for application of common-sense conservation measures. Producers farming hilly land are required to develop plans to minimize soil loss and are prohibited from draining wetlands that provide critical wildlife habitat, improve water quality and minimize flood damage. 

Conservation compliance has been credited with saving billions of tons of topsoil and protecting millions of acres of wetlands. Crop insurance has now replaced farm program payments and subsidies as the primary financial safety net for farmers, with taxpayers paying an average of 60 percent of total crop insurance premium costs – a total of $9 billion this fiscal year. Until 1996, conservation compliance was required for farmers receiving crop insurance premium subsidies, but it was dropped to maximize farmer participation in the insurance program. Congress rightfully recognized that it was time to restore conservation compliance as a requirement for receiving crop insurance premium subsidies and, in so doing, retain the well-established compact between farmers and taxpayers.

Stemming the loss of native prairie was another major issue for the conservation community in the 2014 Farm Bill debate. The Dust Bowl is history’s reminder of the natural disasters caused by short-sighted policies that promote conversion of grassland to agricultural production. An estimated 1.3 million acres of grassland in the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains was lost largely to conversion for agricultural production between 2006 and 2011. This conversion was primarily the result of high commodity prices and the lack of government policy discouraging the practice. Creation of a national Sodsaver program to establish financial disincentives by limiting crop insurance premium subsidies to farmers converting grassland to agricultural production was another priority for the League and its conservation partners. Unfortunately, this was an area where compromise prevailed and we were only able to enact a regional Sodsaver program applicable to farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Montana. While a national program would have been preferable, limiting crop insurance premium subsidies for grassland conversion in these states targets an area where significant losses are occurring and opens the door to for program expansion in the next Farm Bill.

Although the 2014 Farm Bill provided victories that will benefit our soil, water and other natural resources, we need to remain vigilant. The new conservation compliance provisions will require the development of new regulations and guidelines for program implementation and administration at USDA. Opponents will attempt to weaken our initiatives at each stage of the process and we will need to stay engaged to ensure that the victories obtained in the 2014 Farm Bill are not diminished.

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