Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Farm Bill clears House

By Tim
Spielman
Associate Editor

Washington – Members of the U.S. House renewed hope last week
that a Farm Bill, which includes a number of conservation programs,
might be renewed for another five years by the time the current
bill expires in September.

By a vote of 231-191, House members passed the measure, which
includes about $25 billion over five years for conservation
programs like the Conservation Reserve Program and the
Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and includes new
provisions such as ‘Sodsaver’ and ‘Open Fields.’

The Farm Bill, totalling $286 billion, also includes $42 billion
for subsidies and other help for farmers; $190 billion for food
stamps and other nutrition programs; and $29 billion for rural
development, research, and energy programs.

Conservation groups largely expressed support for the bill,
though some shortcomings, they say – such as a freeze on
Conservation Security Program signup – might be addressed in the
Senate’s Farm Bill.

‘The House measure addresses many conservation priorities and
works for the security and stability of America’s conservation
programs,’ Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever’s vice president of
governmental affairs, said in a press statement.

Brad Redlin, director of agricultural programs for the Izaak
Walton League of America, said there were some obvious winners and
losers on the conservation side of the Farm Bill.

EQIP, which cost-shares with farmers and ranchers for installing
conservation measures – including ways to improve animal waste and
irrigation water management, limit erosion, and more – would see an
increase from $1.2 billion to $2 billion annually, Redlin said.
Another program, the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program
(FRPP), which provides matching funds to assist with the purchase
of conservation easements, could see funding increase from $100
million each year to $280 million per year for the next five
years.

Though not a ‘terrible’ program, Redlin said EQIP tends to
encourage the expansion of factory farms.

‘It’s not an investment in conservation or environmental
enhancement,’ he said.

Redlin said the FRPP in essence is an ‘anti-sprawl program, not
necessarily a habitat development-type program.’

Groups like the Ike Walton League, as well as the Minnesota
Project – an organization that promotes productive, environmentally
friendly farming – say enhancement to those two programs in the
House bill appears to have come at the expense of higher
priorities, including CSP, which rewards farmers, ranchers, and
forest owners for conservation-friendly practices on private land.
The bill effectively shut down the program – except for payments to
landowners currently enrolled – until 2012.

According to an Ikes press release: ‘Š the CSP program has
achieved real wildlife, soil, and water quality results and is far
better equipped than either FRPP or EQIP to produce more in the
future. Nonetheless, this Farm Bill uses CSP as an ATM for lavishly
funding the two programs perhaps least beneficial to wildlife.’

Added Mike McGrath, agriculture policy specialist for the
Minnesota Project: ‘We think it’s pretty unacceptable to delay the
program until 2012. Too much has been done to turn it off now.’

Supporters of CSP pin their hopes on a Senate bill to be
authored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a staunch supporter of the
program. McGrath said indications are Harkin will attempt to pass a
bill that simplifies CSP, and perhaps combines it with EQIP – an
attempt at minor reform of the conservation titles of the Farm
Bill.

‘Everybody realizes the (CSP) program needs changes,’ McGrath
said, pointing to a number of ‘tiers’ built into the program, which
determines levels of participation and compensation for
landowners.At the same time, he said, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
(head of the House Agriculture Committee and sponsor of the House
bill) failed to realize the importance of the program.

In 2006, there were about 4,320 CSP contracts nationwide (14 in
Minnesota) totalling about 3.65 million acres (about 7,500 acres in
Minnesota).

Winners in the House version of the Farm Bill’s conservation
titles include the Grassland Reserve Program (GSP) and the Wetland
Reserve Program (WRP), said PF’s Nomsen.

WRP, which offers landowners payments for protecting, restoring,
and enhancing wetlands on their land, would be allowed annual
enrollment up to 250,000 acres; the past few years enrollment has
been about 140,000 acres annually, Nomsen said.

Meanwhile, GRP’s new ‘baseline’ would be established at 1.34
million acres, up from 1 million. The GRP program helps farmers
protect and restore grasslands while maintaining the areas as
grazing lands.

The Farm Bill conservation title’s signature program, the
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the subject of discussion
regarding possible cuts or conversion to crop production for
alternative energy use prior to bill passage, retained its 39.2
million acre cap. Currently, enrollment is at about 36.5 million
acres nationwide.

Nomsen said contracts holding about 3.5 to 4 million acres of
CRP lands are due to expire this year. And no general signups are
slated for 2007. However, a recently added provision within CRP –
CP-38 – will allow the addition of potentially 500,000 acres for
the program, and it’s possible general signup could return next
year, he said.

Two other recommended provisions with the conservation titles of
the Farm Bill became part of the House version.

Both Open Fields – which would provide matching funds to states
to develop ‘walk-in’ programs to increase hunter access to private
lands – and ‘Sodsaver,’ which would discourage the breaking of
prairie land to put into crop production, are part of the Farm
Bill.

Sodsaver ranked near the top of Ikes’ priorities, according to
Redlin. However, ‘It’s not the Sodsaver we advocated for Š’ Redlin
said. The Ike Walton League recommended no payments for those who
dropped federally funded conservation programs in order to return
idle land to production.

But the bill approved by the House would allow for loan
deficiency payments (crop subsidies) for those landowners. They
would be ineligible for federal crop insurance and disaster relief,
however, for the first four years of production.

Nomsen said the House version of Sodsaver is ‘an important
starting point,’ and that no crop insurance would dissuade many
farmers and ranchers from turning new soil in the Prairie Pothole
Region, where marginal ag land makes crop production of itself a
risk.

Etc.

Next up for the Farm Bill is Senate consideration.

Once thought to be an item that might not get consideration
until possibly next year, conservation officials say there’s
renewed interest – principally from bill sponsor Harkin – to
resolve the matter this year, perhaps as early as September.

Nomsen said the House bill passed, partly because of efforts of
freshmen reps from states like South Dakota and Minnesota.
First-year Agriculture Committee members Tim Walz, D-Minn., and
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., demonstrated an interest in
conservation measures, Nomsen said. But, he added, the Senate has
an ‘extremely tight schedule.’

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