Compliance with conservation

Washington — A House bill introduced last week would, if passed, return a link between conservation compliance to crop insurance payments in some cases for the first time since the 1996 Farm Bill, conservation groups say.

The Crop Insurance Accountability Act, introduced by Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican, and California Rep. Mike Thompson, a Democrat, would “enhance conservation by incentivizing responsible farm practices,” according to a press release from Thompson’s office.

Per the release, “Under this legislation, in order for farmers to qualify for taxpayer subsidies of crop insurance, they must meet basic conservation requirements that minimize the impact to some of our most sensitive areas such as highly erodible lands and wetlands.”

According to Thompson, crop insurance for farmers is subsidized by an average of 62 percent. Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates last year that tax subsidy cost about $7 billion.

Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall said in a statement that farmers and ranchers require a safety net, but not incentive to damage undisturbed lands.

“ … It’s just as crucial to make sure that crop insurance isn’t an incentive to destroy wetlands and grasslands that protect drinking water, mitigate the impacts of floods, and provide habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife,” Hall said in a DU release. “The Crop Insurance Accountability Act ensures the continuation of these basic conservation measures.”

DU says more than 90 percent of ag producers already participate in U.S. Department of Agriculture’s voluntary conservation compliance programs, and farmers and ranchers who believe the costs outweigh the benefits of compliance may opt out at any time.

The legislation would restore a measure that’s long been absent, the group says, and would strengthen conservation in the current farm bill being considered in the House.

“Conservation compliance has been included in the farm bill to reduce soil erosion and deter wetland drainage since 1985,” the DU release says. “It was linked to crop insurance until the 1996 Farm Bill, which retained conservation compliance but de-linked it from crop insurance. The farm bill reported by the House Agriculture Committee consolidates or eliminates many direct payment programs currently requiring compliance and replaces them with crop insurance.”

H.R. 2260, the release says would “ensure the continuation of these basic conservation measures.”

Unlike the House farm bill, the Senate bill includes conservation compliance regarding crop insurance.

The American Farm Bureau Federation is onboard with the Thompson-Fortenberry bill, according to Thompson’s press statement.

“It is no secret that much of agriculture fought the conservation compliance linkage requirement during last year’s debate on the farm bill,” Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation says in the press release. “But our desire to avoid a time-consuming and contentious debate with our long-standing partners on workable environmental stewardship programs helped build a consensus around rational provisions that protect farmers while furthering the conservation of natural resources.”

The National Wildlife Federation’s Larry Schweiger says that group, too, supports the measure. He says the bill “closes a dangerous loophole (that) threatens soil and water quality, as well as habitat for fish and wildlife.”

Thompson said the legislation would do the following:

  • Apply to annually tilled crops grown on highly erodible lands or any crops in wetlands, as determined by the USDA;
  • Require farmers in these areas to file a conservation plan with USDA that states how they will reduce and offset impacts in these areas;
  • Require farmers to be in compliance according to their USDA-approved conservation plan in order to receive federal subsidies for their crop insurance premiums;
  • Delay the date for producers to come into compliance who are subject to conservation compliance for the first time for five years;
  • Allow for all appeal processes to be exhausted before farmers are found to be out of compliance.

If a farmer chooses not to participate in conservation compliance or is found to be out of compliance, (he) may still purchase crop insurance, but would be responsible for 100 percent of the insurance premium, Thompson said.

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