Ever since the first farm bills in the 1930s, legislation to help agriculture has been concerned about not only production but also stewardship. Its no surprise then that as our current fiscal crisis is forcing a fundamental examination of government support for production agriculture, questions about conservation have been asked.

Those questions and the decisions we make about conservation today will reverberate for decades to come. Looking forward, our nation and planet face huge challenges in ensuring we can feed and clothe 9 billion people by 2050 while doing so on a land base under more pressure and demands.

In other columns, I have written how our nation's commitment to agriculture must remain firm given these challenges, despite the tight fiscal conditions. Today I want to discuss conservation compliance.

In 1985, Congress made the receipt of commodity support, loans, conservation program payments AND crop insurance contingent on producers complying with certain minimum conservation standards.

Those standards on highly erodible land (HEL) and wetlands have had a dramatic effect on soil erosion. USDA's Economic Research Service estimates that fully 25-percent of all soil erosion reduction since 1982 can be attributed directly to conservation compliance.

In 1996, as part of a series of steps taken by Congress to boost the role, scale and size of crop insurance as a safety net program; compliance was removed from crop insurance.

Now, the national debate surrounds major changes to Title I—with some farm groups even calling for the complete elimination of Title I— leaving only crop insurance as the commodity safety net. As a result, we have seen calls to reattach conservation compliance to crop insurance.

Those calls come from many quarters but I want to present our vision of reattaching conservation compliance to crop insurance.

In our view, compliance must be strengthened and done properly. Compliance can work well for farmers while ensuring public accountability for dollars spent.

We believe that most producers know and understand the current standard—we would maintain that standard and continue to apply it to commodity producers through the crop insurance program.

Most farmers believe that fragile HEL and wetlands shouldn’t be farmed in any case, so it seems that the most producer problems with compliance center on an outdated and inconstant enforcement system. And we propose to update that system. 

What would happen if participation in USDA’s crop insurance program required conservation compliance based on the existing requirements?

First, not too many farmers would have to do anything different than they do now.

The overlap between current Title I program participants and buyers of crop insurance is enormous. From USDA participation estimates, only about five-percent of corn and wheat growers (more than half of all commodity crops) who buy crop insurance don’t also participate in
Title I programs.

For the overwhelming majority of producers nothing would change- if you have to comply now then you'd still have to comply if compliance was reattached with crop insurance. If you don't have to comply now, you wouldn’t have to comply if the standards are reattached.

On a local or regional level, having a few more commodity producers comply with HEL and wetlands standards could of course have significant positive localized impact.

Over time, however at the aggregate level, without those programs, hundreds of millions of tons of soil could erode off our productive farmland if government support programs don't have those requirements; and producers decide, perhaps under short term production pressures, to move away from the current system. 

Second, if crop insurance is the only or major element of the farm safety net available, there is little likelihood that the conservation requirement would do much if anything to drop crop insurance program participation rates. 

As has been mentioned, only five percent of producers who buy crop insurance now don’t participate in Title I programs, thus, only five percent of producers might be impacted and susceptible to leaving the crop insurance program.

For the 20 percent or so of corn and wheat producers who receive Title I payments but do not buy crop insurance, they already may have compliance requirements, so again, nothing would change.

Third, conservation compliance will showcase farmers’ stewardship and government accountability, as government budgets dwindle and expectations of public responsibility rise.

Our fiscal situation has placed a premium on policymakers to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are being spent well.

One measure of that accountability is ensuring that government support payments are not used at cross-purposes and causing unintended consequences such as soil erosion, and the preventable, environmental degradation of fragile land.

Of course, all of this rests on the assumption that conservation compliance will be adequately enforced. 

In that regard, we believe the current system, more than 25-years old, is in need of reform.

Producers view it as outdated and antiquated, and the Government Accountability Office has investigated the system and found it lacking.

We believe the reattachment of compliance to crop insurance is an opportunity to modernize an enforcement system to serve both producers and the taxpayer better. We believe the point of enforcement is not to "get a producer"; rather, it’s to help producers comply with basic conservation practices on fragile land.

Indeed as we look at enforcement we think a newer producer orientated system needs to be designed that is more modern and objective.

One reason for these changes to the enforcement system is to make clear that even by reattaching compliance, crop insurance folks shouldn’t be suddenly involved.

USDA’s Risk Management Agency has neither the mandate nor expertise to assure good conservation practices. Crop insurance agents and companies also shouldn't be involved in enforcement. NRCS, who enforces the current program, can usefully apply its oversight elsewhere. A third-party program to certify conservation compliance could reduce the government cost of enforcement.

Another option, already being explored within NRCS, is to switch to a state-level system that removes the administrative burden from county NRCS offices to both enforce standards as well as work day-to-day with producers cooperatively. Switching to that type of system for FSA and NRCS, while coupling it with modern technology, should also be considered.      

It’s hard to guess what’s in store for Title I in the 2012 farm bill. Too many have proposed to eliminate the program eligibility incentive for conservation compliance. This issue must be seriously discussed. We  believe the answer is clear: compliance must be reattached to crop insurance. It is the right and fair thing to do that can benefit agriculture and the environment.  

 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 www.farmland.org.

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