Conservation: Well-Positioned for the 2012 Farm Bill

By Bruce Knight

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Although the Congressional Super Committee appointed to address our nation's deficit fell apart, one of the positive outcomes from that process was a template for moving forward on the next farm bill.  Initial discussions were shrouded in secrecy; however, a lot of folks provided input, and the outline for an agreement has begun to emerge. 


Now we have an opportunity to complete a bill with far greater transparency through public hearings.  It's time to roll up our shirtsleeves and put together a farm program that is forward-looking enough to meet the risk management needs of farmers and also unleash the productive capacity necessary to feed the nine billion souls who will be sharing our planet by 2050.

To produce a farm bill next year, I believe that farm, nutrition and conservation groups must coalesce, and Congress must move swiftly.  Realistically, the timeframe is always very short in a presidential election year.  Ideally, the yet-to-be-unveiled draft bill should be introduced soon after Congress returns in January, and hearings must take place and committee markups completed before the Easter recess.  Congress then must pass the bill before Memorial Day and have it on the President's desk for him to sign before July 4.  (Remember, Congress only tends to get things done before a holiday recess.)  Otherwise, it's unlikely to happen.

Together we can feed the Bees

Thus far, conservation appears to have fared okay in the farm bill discussions.  Of the estimated $23 billion in reductions to baseline spending envisioned for farm bill programs, about $6 billion would come from conservation.   Of course, there is always a chance that overall agricultural cuts to meet deficit concerns could go deeper, but at $6 billion, conservation would certainly have given its fair share and should not take any greater hit.

How can we reduce spending and yet ensure that farmers have the support they need while we safeguard the environment and increase productivity?  Several strategies are key:  consolidating programs, reducing overhead and minimizing reductions in program benefits. 

Current thinking suggests the next farm bill may combine the Agricultural Management Assistance program (AMA), the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) into one robust cost-share program that helps farmers meet their conservation needs.  The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) would drop to about 25 million acres, with provisions for haying and grazing on some of those acres in exchange for a lower payment rate-similar to the recommendations I shared on this blog for a 10-10-10 CRP last June.  Good land needs to come out of CRP and move into productive use; environmentally fragile land should remain in CRP.

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) would continue as a separate program focusing on heightened conservation objectives and productivity improvements.  (Note that sign-up for the current CSP closes January 13, with potential enrollment of nearly 10 million acres, so farmers need to move quickly if they want to apply this year.)  In addition, under a new farm bill there would probably be some consolidation of easement programs including the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP).

These are the major changes to conservation programs now likely in the next bill.  However, as we're developing it, we need to consider other efficiencies as well, such as linking crop insurance purchases and conservation commitments, expanding research and improving the environmental performance of rural development programs, which I plan to discuss in greater detail in a future blog. 

The bottom line is that now is the time to move the next farm bill forward.  With consensus on the basic outline for the farm bill and the cost-savings required, it's time to work on the details of the bill in an open and transparent way, with public hearings and appropriate debate.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.


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