Farm bill is one item on long agenda

Washington — Last year, it likely was the upcoming election that derailed a new, and expected federal farm bill. This year, the blame just might be placed on potential conflict in Syria. The common denominator, ultimately, has been disagreement between House and Senate regarding where cuts should occur, and to what degree.

And the losers continue to be wildlife and conservation programs.

With Congress down to just a few days before the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30, and with debate regarding the Syrian situation at the forefront of Capitol discussion (amid other budget debate, immigration, etc.), the chances of another extension (similar to last year’s) or a continuing resolution to fund farm bill programs, is a growing possibility, even with a Senate farm bill passed earlier this year. The U.S. House, however, split the “nutrition” title (which consumes about 70 percent of the bill’s dollars) from the rest of the bill, leaving the controversial food stamps program in limbo.

“Right now, we expect the 2008 (farm) bill to be extended,” Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever’s vice president of governmental affairs, said earlier this week. “It’s very unlikely they’ll have time to complete things before then.”

With the keystone Conservation Reserve Program already targeted for a reduction to 25 million maximum acres in coming years (down from a high of 37 million nationwide just a few years ago), and other programs like Grassland Reserve and Wetlands Reserve facing reductions with each missed chance to create a new bill, conservation groups now are hoping for key provisions to protect wetlands and native prairie, according to John Devney, senior vice president for Delta Waterfowl in Bismarck, N.D.

Those two keys: re-linking conservation compliance to crop insurance premium subsidies, and adopting a “sodsaver” provision to protect native prairies.

The former disallows insurance subsidies for risky farming practices, such as wetland draining and farming on highly erodible lands. The latter would make lands not previously used to grow crops ineligible for crop insurance or other federal benefits.

Both items, Devney said, have the support of conservation and agricultural groups – with some exceptions – and save money.

“It doesn’t make good sense for the taxpayers to pay for the drainage of wetlands and the conversion of native prairie,” he said.

Devney also pointed out that some commodity prices, like the price now being fetched for a bushel of corn, have dropped in the past 12 months, making some of the other federal conservation programs more attractive than they were in the recent past.

But given the fiscal climate in Washington, any farm bill discussion won’t include expansion of existing programs, he said.

That’s why re-linking conservation compliance with insurance payments, and sodsaver, are “where we need to put all our marbles,” Devney said.

Some groups say better land practices also could’ve headed off the spike in insurance payments made to ag producers last year, following the drought of 2012.

“Extreme weather forced the Federal Crop Insurance Program to pay out a record-breaking $17.3 billion (for) crop losses last year, much of which could have been prevented using water-smart strategies,” according to an NRDC press release.

Minnesota ranked 20th in the percentage of crop loss caused by drought, heat, and hot wind, according to the NRDC, with payments totalling about $178 million.

“Over 282 million acres of cropland – making up at least 70 percent of the nation’s total cropland – are insured under the Federal Crop Insurance Program, a public-private partnership between the (USDA’s Risk Management Agency) and 18 private insurance companies,” the press release states. “The FCIP is the most expensive farm subsidy program, and serves as the primary risk management tool for farmers to prepare for potential crop loss, including from weather-related risks.”

From 2001 to 2010, crop losses averaged $4.1 billion a year, according to the NRDC.

In a U.S. News and World Report story earlier this week, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said an extension to the farm bill is not favorable.

“I do not support an extension because it is bad policy that yields no deficit reduction, no reform, and does nothing to help American agriculture create jobs,” Stabenow said in the story. “It’s time to do the work we were sent here to do and finally finish this farm bill.”

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