Policy Pulse: Conservation Priorities Advanced in Farm Bill

Wheat farm in Minnesota. Photo credit: USDA.

The long road to a new Farm Bill took a positive turn in early February when President Obama signed it into law. The 2014 Farm Bill contained many victories for the conservation community. The League’s top priorities – re-establishing the linkage between conservation compliance and crop insurance premium subsidies and protecting native prairie – were 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 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. This program 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 as the primary financial safety net for farmers, with taxpayers paying an average of 60 percent of farmers’ crop insurance premium costs — a total of $9 billion in Fiscal Year 2013. 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 League. 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. A national Sodsaver program would create financial disincentives to converting grassland to agricultural production by limiting crop insurance premium subsidies for such production. Although Congress enacted only a regional Sodsaver program – applicable to farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Montana – this program targets an area where significant losses are occurring and opens the door to expanding Sodsaver in the next Farm Bill.

While 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 the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 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.