Farm Bill extended; Sodsaver push is on

Washington – Following another extension of the 2002 federal
Farm Bill – this one, a week long – conservation groups took the
opportunity to let House and Senate conferees know their priorities
regarding the five-year plan currently on the table. Preservation
of the Sodsaver provision tops the list.

But those close to conference negotiations say it’s not
conservation that’s holding up Farm Bill passage. Rather, it’s how
other items regarding benefits for farmers – and how to pay for
them – that’s creating roadblocks. And President Bush has
threatened to veto the bill if a portion of its $286 billion isn’t
trimmed.

Experts say even if a bill is agreed upon by the April 25
deadline, it would take another couple weeks for it to pass through
the usual channels of an approved bill, including being signed by
Bush. Thus, another extension.

The 2002 bill first was extended in September 2007, then again
in March and April this year.

The Sodsaver provision, which would limit some federal payments
– crop insurance and disaster aid – to landowners who choose to
till native prairie ground, likely would save the government money,
and would protect the few native grasslands that remain in the
United States, say groups like Ducks Unlimited.

On Monday – the eve of Earth Day – DU issued a press release
warning of the effects of breaking native prairie.

Habitat loss is one of the effects of conversion to cropland,
but doing so “also releases millions of tons of carbon dioxide that
has been stored in the soil by prairie flora, further contributing
to climate change,” said DU’s Dr. Scott Stephens, in a press
statement.

According to DU, 22 million acres of native prairie remain in
the northern Great Plains, and only about 1 million acres are
“protected in perpetuity, making it one of the most endangered
ecosystems on earth.”

The groups says 500,000 acres were converted last year, and
another 10,000 already has been converted in Nebraska this year,
according to Neil Shader, DU communications specialist in
Washington, D.C.

Shader said opposition to Sodsaver likely has come from groups
that believe converting acres to crop production might increase
supply enough to reduce the price of feed for livestock, and
food.

Lynn Tjeerdsma, agriculture policy advisory for Sen. John Thune
(R-S.D.), said the Senate version of the Farm Bill, through
Sodsaver, takes away the biggest incentives for putting “marginal”
land into production.

Thune, and fellow South Dakota Sen. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin,
have sent letters to members of the conference committee, in
support of Sodsaver.

According to Thune’s letter: “Unfortunately, an unintended
consequence of federal farm policy is that two federally subsidized
programs, crop insurance and the noninsured crop disaster
assistance program, have motivated conversion of hundreds of
thousands of acres of native grassland to cropland.

“The federally subsidized assistance producers have received Š
for poor and failed crops planted on marginal and fragile lands is
decimating the Great Plains prairie landscape and reducing
grassland that otherwise would support grazing livestock.”

Beyond the environmental benefits, Thune said Sodsaver could
save money:

“Accordingly, I point out to you that the Congressional Budget
Office has scored the Senate’s version of Sodsaver at a savings of
$23 million over five years, and $119 million over 10 years.”

Tjeerdsma said the Conservation Reserve Program also remains a
priority for Thune, as it provides much of the land available for
pheasant hunting, which contributes an estimated $155 million to
South Dakota’s economy each fall – much of that money coming from
hunters from states like Minnesota.

“One of (Thune’s) biggest concerns is keeping CRP intact,”
Tjeerdsma said. About 1.5 million acres of CRP creates 1 million
acres of good pheasant habitat, he said. Currently, South Dakota
has about 1.2 million to 1.3 million acres of CRP land.

Tjeerdsma said it’s up to the USDA to come up with policy that
make CRP an option that’s competitive with current rental rates for
active ag land.

While few in the conservation community believe there’s reason
to fear the loss of the Sodsaver provision in the Farm Bill –
should a bill eventually be approved – no one is saying it’s safe,
either.

“It’s tough to tell; priorities change every hour,” Shader said
Monday. “It could be on the cutting room floor right now.”

Kristin Sosanie, a spokesperson for the House Ag Committee, said
the Farm Bill was likely better off with Sodsaver than without it,
simply because it represents cost savings.

Still, with the current push for production of ag land, what
will be spared from the plow is yet to be determined. High
commodity prices and the continued push for biofuel production
makes crop producing desirable.

But there’s been a recent change in opinion in Congress and
elsewhere regarding biofuels – the good and the bad.

“There’s been an overall change in mentality regarding
biofuels,” said DU’s Shader. “Everybody was looking for a quick
fix. Now they’re stepping back and saying, ‘maybe it’s not the
panacea we thought it would be.’ “

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