Federal Farm Bill in ‘bit of a holding pattern’

St. Paul — A new federal Farm Bill, the greatest contributor in recent history to conservation programs in the state, could be developed and adopted this summer, but conservation leaders aren’t holding their collective breath.

After all, it’s a federal election year, and that in itself has been known to bog down policy making.

However, there are other factors that lead conservationists and farmers alike to hold out hope. For one thing, according to Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever’s vice president of government affairs, the now-defunct federal “super committee,” while examining budget reductions last year, began laying the Farm Bill groundwork.

Nomsen said he expects the Farm Bill to at least get some consideration during coming months.

John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, visited D.C. last week regarding Farm Bill matters and shared sentiments similar to Nomsen.

“We’re in a little bit of a holding pattern right now,” Jaschke said, adding that the chances of a pre-election adoption of the bill is 50-50. “If we don’t get it on its way by the end of the summer, it might get too close to the election.”

There are, however, current Farm Bill expirations that must be considered.

“Clearly, something must happen by the end of the calendar year,” Nomsen said.

A week ago, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson criticized the Republican budget offered by House Budget committee chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “The process outlined by the House Republican budget all but guarantees there will be no Farm Bill this year,” Peterson said in a press release.

He said the proposal “proposes significant cuts in the farm safety net and conservation programs …”

In Minnesota, a number of groups have developed conservation priorities for elected officials to consider when formulating the 2012 bill. They were the items discussed with members of Congress and their staff when Jaschke recently traveled to Washington, D.C.

Jaschke said one thing the groups – BWSR, DNR, Pollution Control Agency, and Department of Agriculture – are trying to emphasize is how the state is able to “stretch” federal dollars – in part by matching local funds with federal dollars. Also, he said, state agencies want to be certain the money made available is used properly – first making sure highest-priority lands are enrolled, and second, purchasing long-term easements on the most environmentally sensitive lands.

He said contracts on more than 800,000 acres of Conservation Reserve Program lands are due to expire in the state within the next five years – about half of current enrollment.

Another priority for the groups is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program – what Jaschke said provides “huge dollars for the agricultural sector for water quality.”

The Farm Bill matters to Minnesota conservationists, Jaschke said, merely because of its scope.

“The federal Farm Bill brings more conservation dollars and acres to Minnesota than everything else combined,” he said.

According to the groups’ “Conservation Priorities for the 2012 Farm Bill,” Minnesota landowners are among the top recipients for Farm Bill conservation funding. And, “state and local conservation delivery partners leverage this funding in conjunction with Minnesota’s Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment objectives and funding.”

Currently ongoing across the nation is a general signup period for CRP. Landowners may apply for the program through April 6.

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