America Needs a New Farm Bill

  • Posted by Dawn Merritt
    For the first time since the 2008 Farm Bill expired more than 15 months ago, there is reason for optimism that passage of another Farm Bill is within reach. After four months of negotiations, an agreement has been reached by the House-Senate Farm Bill Conference Committee, which will now go to both houses of Congress for final approval. Amendments to the legislation are not allowed, and passage of requires a simple majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

    The road to a Farm Bill has been filled with potholes – a process that has frustrated farmers and conservationists alike. As with previous Farm Bills, conservation groups did not get all they wanted. However, our number one priority – re-establishing the link between crop insurance and conservation compliance – is included. The biggest setback was in the failure to establish a national Sodsaver program. However, the regional Sodsaver program established in this legislation will create financial disincentives to convert native grassland to row crops in many areas being impacted most dramatically. This Farm Bill deserves our support.

    Conservation Compliance
    The bill includes a requirement that farmers receiving taxpayer support through crop insurance premium subsidies – support that currently totals $9 billion – adopt basic conservation practices. This continues the compact between farmers and taxpayers known as “conservation compliance,” adopted in the 1985 Farm Bill. Conservation compliance requires that producers receiving commodity and other farm program payments and who are farming land that is prone to erosion must develop conservation plans to reduce soil loss. Conservation compliance also prohibits new drainage of wetlands. Conservation compliance has resulted in conservation practices on 145 million acres of farmland, saving 295 million tons of topsoil annually while protecting between 1.5 million and 3.3 million acres of wetlands. 

    When conservation compliance was enacted as part of the 1985 Farm Bill, farmers receiving crop insurance premium subsidies were required to comply. However, Congress dropped the conservation compliance requirement for farmers receiving crop insurance premium subsidies in 1996 to increase participation in crop insurance and reduce the need for disaster payments. With the elimination of direct payments in this Farm Bill, only a few, relatively small farm payment programs remain that require conservation compliance. Crop insurance has now taken the place as the primary financial safety net for farmers, and crop insurance premium subsidies have become the largest category of taxpayer support to farmers. Re-establishing the link between crop insurance and conservation compliance is clearly justifiable. As has been the case with farmers receiving other farm program benefits, they can chose to farm without conservation plans and can drain wetlands; however, they will not receive taxpayer support if they do. 

    We are disappointed that the Conference Committee established a regional Sodsaver program instead of a national one. Loss of grasslands is not just a regional issue. Nonetheless, grasslands in the western corn belt of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa are being lost at an estimated rate of 30 acres per day. Currently, there are currently no financial disincentives in place to deter grassland conversion to agricultural production. Grasslands provide critical wildlife habitat, improve water quality, and reduce flood damage. As with conservation compliance, farmers can still convert grassland to agricultural production but will lose crop insurance premium subsidies if they do so. Despite our preference for a national Sodsaver program, a regional program will begin to stem the loss of critical grasslands.

    We want all members of Congress to vote for final passage of the 2014 Farm Bill. It’s been 15 months since the clock ran out on the 2008 Farm Bill. It’s high time that we pass a new one.

    – Bill Wenzel, IWLA Agriculture Program Director

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