Washington — Some folks are optimistic. Some describe the task ahead as a challenge. Still others wonder what evidence there is to suggest members of a conference committee that began reconciliation of House and Senate farm bills this week can reach a compromise, given the great divide regarding federal food stamps.
Regardless, the debate is under way, and features 12 members of the U.S. Senate, and 29 members of the House. Minnesotans engaged in the conference include Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz, both Democrats, and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
On the conservation front, what’s at stake is a “sodsaver” provision intended to protect native prairie, and the “relinking” of conservation compliance with crop insurance subsidies, to discourage the farming of “marginal” acres.
Both those measures are supported by groups like Ducks Unlimited, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Pheasants Forever, and others.
In Congress, support is mixed.
According to Eric Lindstrom, DU government affairs representative in Bismarck, N.D., the Senate bill contains a full sodsaver provision; the House’s takes a regional approach. And the House bill contains no language for linking insurance payments with conservation compliance; the Senate version does so.
The conference committee’s first meeting was to be held Wednesday, Oct. 30.
“I’m optimistic, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Lindstrom said earlier this week.
The current farm bill in play is the 2008 version, which more than once has been extended because of disagreement over program funding among parties.
The National Wildlife Federation calls re-linking (the two were tied together from 1985 through 1996) a “common-sense” approach. “Conservation compliance doesn’t take away anyone’s freedom to farm on their own land; farmers are free to drain wetlands or farm highly erodible land with no soil conservation measures. However, by doing so they forfeit eligibility for federal benefits, since these activities harm the public good.”
More recently, a group of six former chiefs of the Natural Resources Conservation Service penned a note to members of Congress, urging support for conservation compliance.
In part, they wrote: “Today, high prices driven by strong demand for our commodities are boosting farm income but putting enormous pressure on our land and water resources. Maintaining the current conservation compliance provisions, which are both effective and achievable, is essential to our efforts to maintain the conservation gains of recent decades.”
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition also wrote members of Congress regarding the farm bill, and outlining its priorities.
Among them: relinking federal aid to soil and water conservation, as well as reducing “crop insurance subsidies for millionaires …”
It’s expected “re-linking” will face stiff resistance. In fact, earlier this month House Ag Committee chair Frank Lucas, R-Oklahoma, issued a press release to that effect, lauding the American Farm Bureau Federation for opposing conservation compliance.
“Conservation compliance measures tied to crop insurance would be a misguided and redundant regulatory burden imposed on farmers and their property rights,” Lucas said in an Oct. 9 statement. “I am philosophically opposed to this linkage …”
Because of its link in the past, DU’s Lindstrom says re-linking wouldn’t be “uncharted territory.” He points to the letter from the former NRCS chiefs as evidence it’s doable, as well as practical.
As for a national sodsaver provision, Lindstrom said the Congressional Budget Office has estimated savings – mostly based on federal farm payments (insurance and otherwise) for previously non-cropped acres – would amount to about $200 million over 10 years, a number that doesn’t take into account the protection of water quality, as well as erosion control provide by native prairies.
“It (sodsaver) is sound fiscal policy, but it’s also good environmental policy,” he said.
Via email, Walz’s office said his priorities for the bill included “strong conservation measures that allow farmers to use their land as they see fit, while protecting critical wildlife and hunting habitats.”
It’s likely any farm bill will continue a recent trend to let CRP acreage slide. Once at about 37 million acres nationwide, the program now claims about 30 million in set-aside acres.
However, Lindstrom said conservation leaders now are taking a different tack when it comes to programs like CRP. What funding is available is being specifically targeted to critical areas, places where it will be most beneficial. They’re also considering advocating for greater usage on CRP, such as livestock grazing – which can benefit those acres if done right, and might encourage enrollment.
“It’s a do-more-with-less scenario,” he said.
The cost of CRP peaked at about $1.8 billion in 2008. While the acres enrolled has decreased since then, the cost has remained relatively stable, Lindstrom said, because rental rates have increased to keep up with increasing returns from producing corn and soybeans. Last year’s federal CRP payments were about $1.7 billion.
That’s less than 2 percent of the entire farm bill, whose programs consume nearly $100 billion annually, with about three-fourths of the funding directed at the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).
Disagreement among Republicans and Democrats over SNAP funding has been what’s recently held up progress on the farm bill. And it’s likely to spark the greatest amount of debate during conference committee negotiations.
Lindstrom said some legislators have indicated they’d like to have a bill passed by the end of the year, prior to facing reversion of farm policy to that of more than half a century ago.