Farm Bill passes Senate, now off to House

Washington — After relatively easy passage in the Senate last week, the nation’s Farm Bill, as it’s called, might face greater debate in the House, where most organizations expect the Republican-controlled chamber to seek greater cuts.

Conservation leaders were quick to laud the inclusion of a “Sodsaver” provision in the Senate bill, which is projected to cost about $970 billion over 10 years (the time period used for cost calculations by the Congressional Budget Office), but save about $23 billion during that time by way of cuts to conservation programs, farm subsidies, and the food stamp program, which consumes about 80 percent of annual farm bill spending. The Senate bill would span a five-year period.

The House Agriculture Committee is expected to begin debate on a Farm Bill on July 11, according to the Izaak Walton League of America, a conservation group that supports the Senate bill.

“With gridlock in Washington slowing progress on so many important issues, it’s encouraging to see bipartisan support for common-sense conservation provisions in the Farm Bill,” Scott Kovarovics, IWLA conservation director, wrote on the Ike’s website.

Likewise, the IWLA and other conservation groups were pleased with a provision (amendment) to “restore the connection between conservation compliance and crop insurance premium subsidies,” the IWLA website says.

Kovarovics said it’s important to link conservation practices to the crop insurance subsidy, simply because of the shift to crop insurance incentives for crop growers.

Already included in the bill was Sodsaver, which, according to Ducks Unlimited, “… is aimed at protecting native grassland acres with no cropping history that are newly converted to crop production. The program is especially important in the Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas and Montana, where the loss of native grassland nesting habitat can have monumental impacts on waterfowl populations and people.”

DU says Sodsaver will “strengthen the farm safety net by focusing crop production on traditionally productive areas.”

Pheasants Forever’s Dave Nomsen, vice president of government affairs, said the Senate bill “maintains an efficient, effective conservation title that assists farmers and ranchers in being good stewards.… ”

Other Farm Bill conservation points, according to the Senate website, include:

  • Extension of the Conservation Reserve Program, the Farmable Wetland Program, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program through 2017.

A “step-down” of the CRP acreage cap would occur through 2017, to 30 million acres in 2013, 27.5 million in 2014, 26.5 million in 2015, 25.5 million in 2016, and 25 million in 2017.

However, a provision was added for the enrollment of 1.5 million acres of grasslands.

Further, the bill establishes that at least 5 percent of EQIP dollars be spent for wildlife habitat.

  • Also extended through 2017 are the Conservation of Private Grazing Land, the Grass-roots Source Water Protection, Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive, and Small Watershed Rehabilitation programs.

The bill authorizes funding at $30 million in each fiscal year (2013-17) for private grazing land, $15 million (each year) for grass-roots source water protection, and $40 million (total, 2013-17) for the access program. (This is the program that made available through the current Farm Bill funding that resulted in the creation of Minnesota’s two-year pilot Walk-In Access program.)

  • Revises the Conservation Stewardship Program, and authorizes it through 2017. Among other things, the bill establishes an enrollment limitation of about 10.3 million acres each year through 2021.
  • Establishes the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which combines the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Grassland Reserve Program, and the Farmland Protection Program. There are two types of easements: agricultural land easements and wetland easements.

Other “conservation title” programs, too, have been repealed. All told, 23 conservation programs would be consolidated into 13.

The biggest Farm Bill change is the elimination of direct payments to farmers whether they plant crops or not. The program, which costs about $5 billion a year, has lost much of its support at a time of $1 trillion federal deficits, and when farmers in general are prospering. Instead there would be greater reliance on crop insurance and a new program that would cover smaller losses on planted crops before crop insurance kicks in.

Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken both voted for the bill.

“Today’s bipartisan vote is a victory for this critical legislation that will help preserve and strengthen the farm safety net, conserve our natural resources, and boost homegrown energy,” Klobuchar said in a press statement.

While the bill passed 64-35, several Republican senators argued it didn’t go far enough in budget-deficit reduction.

Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, questioned the bill’s inclusion of both farm funding and food stamp funding; he said during floor debate that he requested the bill go back to committee, where it be split into two bills. That provision was defeated.

“Why are these measures combined?” Johnson asks in a press release. “The answer is simple: to keep much of the legislation out of the light of day to make spending $1 trillion far easier.”

Other Republicans seemed pleased with the bill. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell called it “one of the finest moments in the Senate in recent times in terms of how you pass a bill.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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