American Farmland Trust proposes Farm Bill reforms focused on conservation

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Nov. 2- With the Congressional “Supercommittee” on the verge of proposing its deficit reduction plan within the month, the American Farmland Trust is prepared with conservation-minded policy reforms for the 2012 Farm Bill. 

“Conservation programs have to be smarter,” said American Farmland Trust (AFT) president Jon Scholl. “We have to streamline; we have to make them more cost-effective.”

Scholl said the American Farmland Trust's plan helps provide ways for policymakers to reach their budget goals by providing opportunities for cost-saving measures. One of the main principles of the AFT's Farm Bill plan is to emphasize the concept of strategic conservation initiatives.

Globally Positioned Agriculture

Under the AFT strategy, 20 percent of conservation funding would be put into a pool of shared funds directed to local, state and regional priorities. This would leave 80 percent of funds available for farmers and ranchers seeking technical and financial assistance to implement conservation practices, similar to the current structure. 

The AFT proposal includes streamlining the alphabet soup of conservation programs by consolidating five easement programs into two, six cost-share programs into one, and providing a simplified framework for producers using these programs.

“We're very concerned about the fundamental difference between an easement program that is directed at trying to take land out of production versus an easement program that's really looking to protect lands so they will remain available for agricultural production,” Scholl said. 

The plan combines the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) and Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) into one easement program directed at keeping farm and ranchland in production. It would combine Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP) and the Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP) into another single easement program directed at taking environmentally fragile land out of production. 

A two-step, simplified process for determining which cost-share program is appropriate for a producer is suggested through the AFT website. http://www.farmbillfacts.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Streamlining-Chart.png

Conservation compliance standards, which are now tied to direct payments, would be re-attached to crop insurance under AFT's proposal. 

“Most farmers know and understand the current compliance standard, so it should not be a burden to simply maintain that standard and continue to apply it to commodity producers through the crop insurance program,” according to AFT literature. 

In terms of Farm Bill subsidy reform, “we advocate that payments are only made when there is a loss,” Scholl said. 

The four guiding principles for a farm safety net that AFT will consult when reviewing the final Farm Bill proposal from Congress are:

--The programs are revenue-based, instead of set by arbitrary prices from Congress every five to 10 years.

--Crop insurance and commodity support programs do not overlap.

--Farmers only receive assistance if there is an unavoidable loss.

--Government payments do not determine where and how intensely crops are grown. 

Scholl also suggested consolidating some of the 45 Rural Development programs at USDA. He said 25 percent of the land converted from farmland in the last five years due to a government decision was driven by a USDA program. According to AFT literature, USDA rural development efforts do not take enough account of land use and its policies lead to loss of prime and unique farmland. 

“We want to help stimulate more diverse and thriving agriculture in areas where conversion pressure is taking place,” he said. “A lot of production is in the path of development. It's a problem for folks who like to have their food produced locally.”

AFT Vice President of Programs and Chief Economist, Kitty Smith, said land development and price speculation for future sale are primary causes of the high land prices producers are facing. 

“Most of the pressure on land prices is because of the influence of development,” she said. “There are increasingly private investors in farmland that see it basically as another commodity.”

The strategies in the AFT proposal address the need for diverse, productive agriculture system, Scholl said, and with approximately 23 million acres of farmland lost in the last 20 years in the U.S., and some of that being the best land for production, farm policy needs to make certain the land can meet the demands of the future. More information on the AFT Farm Bill agenda can be found at http://www.farmbillfacts.org/

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