Conservation component of farm bill discussed
By Janet Kubat Willette
Date Modified: 06/25/2012 1:57 PM
NORTHFIELD, Minn. — Conservation cuts are expected in the next farm bill, but the impact of those cuts remains to be seen.
More than 30 people gathered in Dave Legvold's farm shed May 23 to talk about conservation and the farm bill following a field tour.
Al Juhnke, Sen. Al Franken's agricultural aide, said less than 20 percent of spending in the farm and food bill is targeted to agricultural spending. Even if all farm spending was cut, it wouldn't solve the federal budget problem, he said.
Agricultural spending is facing an unequitable cut, said Tim Kizer of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Agriculture has been the only positive economic growth engine in the nation for the past few years. Less than 2 percent of federal spending is targeted toward the farm bill, he said.
The majority of spending in the farm bill is for nutrition programs. Farm and food programs are aggregated in the bill to gain support, Juhnke said. Not every senator or representative has a farmer in his or her district, but it's a safe bet that everyone has consumers.
The conservation title is particularly important to Minnesota, Juhnke said. He's heard that message often in farm bill hearings he's held across the state for Sen. Franken.
He's been told that flexibility is important in conservation programs and to avoid personnel cuts. Many conservation offices are already operating at bare bones levels and people are needed to put conservation on the ground.
He hears commonalities from the wildlife groups like Pheasants Forever and livestock groups like the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association. Both are worried about the state of the state's grasslands.
Todd Lein of Thousand Hills Cattle Company said there are health and conservation benefits from grass-based agriculture.
Land will likely continue to come out of the Conservation Reserve Program, Juhnke said, and some land should come out. But what's the incentive to keep land in that should be in? Rental rates for conservation programs just aren't competitive. Marginal lands are likely to have crop failures more often than productive land, and with the Senate farm bill geared more toward insurance, what's the impact of putting this land into row crops?
The switch toward insurance has created a regional divide, said Kizer, of Arkansas. Most rice, cotton and peanut farmers don't utilize crop insurance. Rice and cotton farmers would be out of business if they had to rely on crop insurance, he said. Kizer predicts there will be a lot of
talk about how one size doesn't fit all as the farm bill moves ahead in the Senate and the House.
Another issue that's likely to surface is conservation compliance.
Conservation compliance is an agreement between farmers and the public to encourage farmers to comply with Sodbuster and Swampbuster rules, said Ryan Stockwell of the National Wildlife Federation. Farmers have had to meet conservation compliance requirements in order to participate in federal farm programs since the 1985 farm bill. In 1995, conservation compliance was separated from federal crop insurance in an effort to get more farmers to purchase insurance.
Since then, Congress has shifted funding toward crop insurance subsidies and crop insurance is a cornerstone of the 2012 farm bill.
The National Wildlife Federation supports conservation compliance in order to receive crop insurance subsidies. Stockwell said it's not a regulation. If farmers choose to not to comply, they simply forego the taxpayer crop insurance subsidy, which is now about 60 percent of the cost of crop insurance, he said.
Likewise, Kizer said his organization is 100 percent behind conservation compliance for crop insurance subsidized by the government.
The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 was officially introduced on the Senate floor on May 24. Juhnke expects action on the bill in the next few weeks or months. Now is an important time to weigh in, he said.