Get Together at the Starting Gate
By Jon Scholl
© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.
We're a little over a week past the spectacular and unfortunate demise of the Super Committee. As a result, we failed to pass a 2012 Farm Bill as part of that process.
The natural question is “What's next?”
We must pass a farm bill in 2012 because our nation's farmers and ranchers need and deserve a measure of certainty. Farmers need a safety net that works effectively, and they need access to tools that help them be good stewards of our natural resources. And finally, those less fortunate during these economic times deserve a helping hand so they don't go hungry, while our nation as a whole needs the security effective food policies and programs bring.
Adding to the urgent need for action is our nation's long-term fiscal concerns that beg for action and the presidential election just around the corner that will complicate the policy process further if we do not move forward expeditiously.
I am thus heartened by the recent statements of Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who said that the committee will proceed with farm bill mark-up in January and February. This would put the process back on the original timetable that Sen. Stabenow and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Lucas outlined months ago.
We believe a good starting point for this work is that which has been done by the leadership of the Agriculture Committees as part of the Super Committee process. While the text of the leadership's proposal has not been made public, many details have leaked to the press, and more has been learned in conversations with the committee leadership and their staff.
From what has been reported, it appears that the leadership proposal would cut conservation title funding by 10 percent. Given the challenges we face, these cuts are disappointing. But given the size of our nation's fiscal challenges, some measure of cuts to all agriculture programs are expected.
As we look to finish the farm bill process, it seems to me we have reached the point where all of us must say, “Enough, we cannot cut conservation further!”
While any cut to the budget is painful, many of the program changes suggested by the leadership were positive. For example, it appears that a method of focusing our conservation priorities on areas of highest need has been developed. This is real progress.
The leadership has streamlined several conservation programs-again a positive move, since farmers should be able to access and use programs more efficiently.
Further, the leadership appears to have made a robust commitment to agricultural working lands by funding and improving the effectiveness of a new agricultural land easement program, improving the Conservation Stewardship Program and maintaining an effective and robust Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
This week, the Food and Agriculture Organization issued a status report on land and water resources, noting the challenge ahead: to increase agricultural production by
70 percent in coming years at a time when these resources will be put under increasing and extreme strain.
Adding to that burden, we've lost over 23 million acres of farm and ranch land in recent decades here in the United States. This underscores the absolute importance of the conservation title in the farm bill because of its role in supporting the health of our soils, water, air, wildlife habitat and more.
As we see more specific details of the leadership plan, improvements in the conservation title may be needed, but it appears they have put us in a good starting position.
The Safety Net
Unlike conservation, details that have emerged on the safety net cause great concern. As I have written on many occasions, the modern safety net must meet several principles:
- Producers must show they have suffered a real loss before they receive a payment.
- The new safety net should be revenue-based and adjust to volatile and dynamic global markets.
- The new program should help farmers manage long-term market risks in concert with, not duplicating, crop insurance that protects against individual farm risks within a crop year.
- Finally, we need to assure that government programs do not create artificial incentives to farm on land that may have detrimental environmental impacts. A modern farm safety net should seek to minimize such distortion or have systems in place to mitigate such impacts.
News accounts of proposals that would institute higher target prices would send agriculture in the wrong direction. We must not go back to farmers farming the government program.
Reports of an overly-generous, farm-level shallow-loss program is also concerning, as it does not acknowledge the distortion such programs have on planting and on conservation decisions. As the farm bill moves forward, we must remove, reduce and mitigate these distortions.
For decades, we have acknowledged that government payments cause distortion. As a result, we have asked farmers to maintain the minimum conservation plans through conservation compliance. As our safety net evolves, we have to insure that these conservation standards remain in place and evolve with it.
I am disappointed that the leadership proposal did not appear to include the reattachment of conservation compliance to crop insurance subsidies, along with a sod-saver provision. These are important provisions in agriculture's contract with the public that ensures economic stability in agriculture while protecting the resources that sustain our food supply and so much more.
Healthy Food and Food Systems
Changes to address local foods and nutrition are encouraging. The leadership's proposal acknowledges with funding and improved programs the burgeoning public interest in healthy, locally produced food.
Some of these include funding for the Value Added Producer Grant program and creating a new Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program. These measures can also provide exciting new market opportunities for farmers and ranchers.
It is also notable that the leadership proposal maintained efforts to improve the dietary health of the 45 million of our neighbors who currently are food insecure and receive nutrition assistance by funding efforts like SNAP Education and the SNACK program.
The Clock Is Ticking.
The clock is ticking. Now that the Super Committee demise and Thanksgiving turkey are but memories, it is time to gear up for the opportunity that lies ahead early in the New Year.
Everyone touched by the farm bill must immediately analyze the leadership's initial proposal and move quickly out of the starting gate. So much is at stake. Time is fleeting.
About the Author: Jon Scholl is President of American Farmland Trust and a partner in a family farm in McLean County, Illinois. American Farmland Trust is the nation's leading conservation organization dedicated to saving America's farm and ranch land, promoting environmentally sound farming practices and supporting a sustainable future for farms. Since its founding in 1980 by a group of farmers and citizens concerned about the rapid loss of farmland to development, AFT has helped save millions of acres of farmland from development and led the way for the adoption of conservation practices on millions more. AFT's national office is located in Washington, DC. Phone: 202-331-7300. For more information, visit http://www.farmland.org/.
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