Depending on CBO, Conservation title could be trimmed more

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, February 29, 2012 -Members of the Senate Agriculture Committee seem to have much of the 2012 Farm Bill's Conservation Title's parameters wrapped up, but must prepare for Congressional Budget Office (CBO) budget numbers in late March which are expected to add further pressure to downsize.

The budget environment will only be worse next year, which makes it important to write a new Farm Bill in 2012, said National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Policy Director Ferd Hoefner.

“The combination of conservation programs that will disappear without renewed funding and a shrinking land retirement program means we need to have a new farm bill this year, not an

 Together we can feed the Bees

extension of the current bill,” Hoefner said. “Efforts last fall to put together a new conservation title set the stage for further improvements this year that should be added as the bill makes its way through the regular farm bill process.”

The proposal composed by the House and Senate Agriculture Committees last fall for the failed deficit-reducing “super committee” reportedly included a 25 million acre cap on Conservation Reserve Program acres and consolidation of all 23 conservation programs down to 13. The overall Farm Bill proposal included $23 billion in reductions over 10 years.

“The $23 billion from their proposal really becomes the minimum,” said Strategic Conservation Solutions founder Bruce Knight, a former USDA undersecretary. “There's general support for the Conservation Title included in their proposal, but it's subject to change if cuts have to go deeper.”

During Tuesday's Senate Ag Committee hearing, USDA leaders and Chair Debbie Stabenow, D- Mich., emphasized the need to streamline conservation programs while providing enough flexibility to tailor them to individual producers. USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Dave White said that although each current conservation program has its own purposes and goals, it is possible to hold true to all of them and still achieve savings through streamlining and consolidation. He cited an increased emphasis on USDA partnerships with local and state governments, as well as non-governmental organizations.

“Don't let anybody tell you that you can't have environmental progress in harmony with agricultural production, because we can do it,” White said.

Farm Service Agency Administrator Bruce Nelson said that during this time of record high commodity prices, conservation programs must remain flexible. This is especially important as

6.5 million acres of land retire from CRP this year, he noted. Nelson said FSA would be able to work with the 30 million acre cap on CRP proposed in President Obama's FY 2013 budget.

“My goal during this Farm Bill process is to maintain options for producers while simplifying

the programs for producers and those tasked with implementation,” the panel's Ranking Member Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said during the hearing. The number one concern he hears from producers, he said, is over-regulation, while one of the most valued programs in the conservation title, he is told, is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

“This program helps producers address environmental regulations,” he said. “The assistance that USDA provides is important to help producers navigate a complex web of government mandates.”

Roberts emphasized the importance of the Conservation Reserve Program, noting that high prices and new technology may change participation in the program.

“Out in the High Plains, we want to make sure that soil stays on the farm,” he said. “CRP can help, and I want to ensure that producers have that option in coming years.”


Original story printed in February 29, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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