St. Paul — Since a conference committee convened for its initial federal farm bill meeting two weeks ago, little in the way of progress has occurred. Groups with an interest in the process, however, continue to track the effort, and, in some cases, are attempting to influence the outcome.
One such correspondence was sent by Minnesota state agencies to members of the state’s Congressional delegation named to serve on the conference committee: democrats Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz.
“Conservation Priorities for the Farm Bill” was an effort of the state’s DNR, Pollution Control Agency, Board of Water and Soil Resources, and Department of Agriculture. The conservation title of the bill is a small piece of the $100 billion-per-year pie, whose greater portions are reserved for food stamps and agricultural subsidies.
“Minnesota has a major stake in the conservation title,” the priorities letter states. “The farm bill conservation programs are the biggest single source of funding for conservation on privately owned lands, and Minnesota is among the top recipients.”
Similar to what conservation groups have lobbied for, conservation compliance is near the top of the agencies’ priorities list, according to John Jaschke, BWSR’s executive director.
Provisions in current farm bill policy – things known as “Swampbuster,” “Sodbuster,” and highly erodible lands – provide a degree of protection, Jaschke said. And in some cases, Minnesota law serves as a backup plan.
But, the letter read, “Some Minnesota agencies are concerned that commodity prices and changes to the farm safety net will render the existing conservation provisions ineffective.”
• Keep the Wetlands Reserve Program funded at a rate of $250,000 per year, nationally. Through a state-federal partnership, Minnesota has been able to leverage about $90 million via WRP.
• While encouraging support for the Conservation Reserve Program and the Grassland Reserve Program, the agencies suggest legislators “increase the flexibility of land-use options for CRP, expecially the use of managed haying and grazing.”
• The agencies also advocate integrating some farm bill conservation programs – the Conservation Stewardship Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, for example. In doing so, and with a couple other changes, the agencies would like to see the streamlining of conservation delivery.
• Continue to provide funding for public access, similar to the money that resulted in the state’s creation of the Walk-In Access Program three years ago.
Jaschke said the agencies encouraged members of Congress to strengthen conservation “technical assistance.” Retirements from federal agency state outposts, like those of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, have not been filled, he said, a likely result of the federal sequester.
“Local ‘boots-on-the-ground’ technical expertise is necessary to apply conservation targeting tools; target outreach to attract voluntary program participation in high-priority areas; plan, design, and establish conservation practices; and monitor and model farm and watershed-scale to ensure that efforts are effective,” the letter said.
National Farmers Union
Another group, the National Farmers Union, also shipped a letter to members of Congress last month. This one went to the “big four” of the conference committee: Senate Ag Committee chair Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat; Rep. Frank Lucas, chair of the House Ag Committee and a Republican from Oklahoma; Ranking Senate Member Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican; and Ranking House Member Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat.
Most of that letter referred to farm items, including strengthening the livestock disaster program, but also ensuring that conservation program are fully funded, defending both retirement and working lands, and including a sodsaver provision, as is currently in the Senate version of a farm bill.