Senate passes farm bill

Washington — A week after their House counterparts agreed to a new five-year farm bill, members of the Senate approved the $100 billion-per-year package. President Barack Obama has said he’ll sign the bill.

As reported earlier in Outdoor News, most conservation groups supported the legislation forwarded last month by a House-Senate conference committee, largely because it contained language that “re-coupled” conservation compliance with crop insurance subsidies, ensuring a trade-off of conservation practices on ag land for taxpayer dollars for crop insurance.

The bill also includes a regional “Sodsaver” provision, which conservationists say will slow the rate at which native grasslands are converted to cropland – at least in the states of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Iowa, and Nebraska.

“This is a big win for conservation and for working farms and ranchers,” Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall said in a press release. “The conservation programs authorized and funded through the farm bill are the backbone of Ducks Unlimited conservation work on private lands, and they have just been strengthened by the inclusion of our top priorities.”

Of the re-coupling of conservation compliance with crop insurance subsidies, Bridget Collins, of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, said, “This provision will go a long way toward making sure the American taxpayer isn’t providing an incentive for wetland drainage and soil erosion.”

Pheasants Forever’s Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs, had this to say about the Sodsaver provision: “Over the past few years, high crop prices and high land values have pushed crop production onto every available acre, including some of our last, best, prairie habitat.

“This habitat is essential for upland birds and waterfowl; fortunately the farm bill … does include a strong Sodsaver policy, and while the provision is limited to six states … it represents a compromise that will help save native prairie in the states where it is most threatened.”

Also included in the farm bill is the provision that led to the establishment four years ago of Minnesota’s “Walk-In Access” program. The current farm bill includes $40 million nationwide for “Voluntary Open Access,” (formerly Open Fields) meant to open private lands to use by hunters and other sportsmen and women.

However, conservation wasn’t spared cuts in this farm bill.

Eric Lindstrom, DU government affairs representative at the group’s Bismarck, N.D. office, said the Congressional Budget Office estimates savings in cuts made to conservation will result in a savings of about $3 billion over the life of the five-year bill. Most of those savings, Lindstrom said, will come at the expense of the Conservation Reserve Program.

CRP acreage, once around 37 million nationwide, will be reduced to less than 28 million acres by the end of this year. During the duration of the farm bill, it gradually will be decreased to around 24 million acres.

There will be reductions elsewhere, Lindstrom said, in some cases by combining certain programs and/or streamlining them.

Farm groups, generally, gave the farm bill a thumbs up.

“We are one step closer to final passage of the farm bill and giving farmers what they need and deserve – security as they plan for the future,” Minnesota Farmers Union president Doug Peterson said in a press release following House passage of the bill.

Gone from this farm bill are direct commodity payments, but those dollars will be shifted to insurance subsidies, as well as “price loss coverage” or “agricultural risk coverage,” the former in the original House bill, the latter in the Senate bill.

PLC uses reference prices for various commodities, backfilling the price gap if the price of corn, for example, falls below $3.70 per bushel. The reference price for soybeans is $8.40 per bushel.

The Senate’s ARC is based on a formula based on county-wide crop yields and national price averages.

DU says recently about 62 percent of crop insurance premiums have been taxpayer-paid. The CBO estimates federal outlays for crop insurance will be $45 billion during the five-year farm bill.

The biggest sticking point in farm bill negotiations, however, has been food stamp cuts. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which consumes roughly 80 percent of the annual $100 billion farm bill layout, will be reduced about $4 billion during the five-year bill, or about $800 million per year.

Officials say one in 7 Americans uses food stamps to some degree.

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