Conservation Compliance: Let's Talk Straight

By Jon Scholl

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This farm bill cycle has seen some remarkable displays of unity.  Last fall, both Houses and parties voluntarily agreed to a farm bill structure, and in February over 60 groups spanning commodities, conservation, food security and beyond signed a letter calling for a farm bill to be passed this year.  Yet amidst this unity, many of these same groups have talked past each other on the issue of reattaching conservation compliance to the federal premium subsidy for crop insurance.  As a result, we risk missing an opportunity to strengthen this farm bill.

We need to have an earnest conversation about this critical issue.  This is our chance to show that we are willing to take reasonable steps that work to protect the land.  Those calling for change must drop proposals for expanding compliance requirements and make it perfectly clear that this proposal is in no way an attack on the crop insurance system nor its effective functioning.  By the same token, producer groups must debate the issue on its merits and not roll it into larger concerns about federal overreach.  Conservation compliance is not the next “farm dust” rule. 

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Indeed, conservation compliance was attached to the crop insurance premium support until direct payments were implemented in 1996.  Now, it appears that direct payments will be eliminated and that crop insurance will become the primary risk management tool for farmers.   It only makes sense that conservation compliance would be attached to the primary safety net program, as it has always been.

It is time to bring some perspective back to the debate.  Compliance would only apply to crop insurance premium subsidies, not to a producer's eligibility to insure his crops.  Producers initially out of compliance would have ample opportunity to come back into compliance, just as they do now.  Moreover, the compliance requirement would apply only to the crops covered currently by conservation compliance.  Additional impact would be limited to, at most, five percent of wheat production, two percent of corn and soybean production, and less than one percent of cotton and rice production.

This proposal would not put all sorts of new burdens and impossible standards on farmers.   For instance, there's been the suggestion that a heavy rainstorm would cause non-compliance.  This is just not the case.   The compliance mechanism already has a clear exemption for extreme weather.  There also would not be new administrative headaches as some fear.  Farmers would still be able to purchase their crop insurance, get their bank loans, farm their land and receive crop insurance indemnities, just as they do now.

Since 1985, compliance has been a successful part of farm policy.  Moreover, compliance represents a covenant between farmers and society.  It is reasonable for society to require a basic level of stewardship on our most fragile lands in exchange for programs that help provide some measure of economic stability on the farm.  Reattaching compliance would actually set crop insurance on a stronger footing to be the safety net for the next generation.

The bottom line is that conservation compliance has worked.   The USDA's Economic Research Service reports that in the past 25 years, conservation compliance has reduced annual erosion on our most vulnerable soils by 40 percent.   That comes out to 295 million tons of soil saved annually.   In addition, over that same time period, we've gone from losing tens of thousands of acres of wetlands on farms every year to actually gaining wetlands.   Continuing on this track is critical for the long-term productivity and competitiveness of American agriculture.

I believe this is a very reasonable approach and I hope my friends in the agricultural community will respond in print with their reasonable concerns.  A two-way dialogue is the best way to develop a common-sense system for attaching conservation compliance to the crop insurance premium subsidy.  This would complement the many other important advances for conservation that we anticipate will be included in the next farm bill.  But it can only be achieved if we have an earnest and constructive debate that considers the best interests of agriculture over the long term. 

About the author: Jon Scholl became the President of American Farmland Trust in July 2008, after serving as Counselor to the Administrator for Agricultural Policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) since 2004. Prior to that, Scholl served the Illinois Farm Bureau Federation for 25 years.  He is a partner in a family farm in McLean County, Illinois.

 

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