Washington, April 26, 2012 - The president of the National Corn Growers Association today told a House Agriculture subcommittee that "it's important to acknowledge that farm bill conservation programs have had significant positive impacts over the past several decades, which have led to lasting environmental improvements on agricultural lands."
But NCGA's Garry Niemeyer, who was also testifying on behalf of a coalition of farm and commodity groups, said the organizations "recognize the monumental task before this committee to advance a new farm bill that addresses a broad range of nutrition and agriculture concerns across the country," especially "in light of the extremely difficult fiscal and economic conditions that our nation faces today."
"Fortunately," Niemeyer told the Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry, "we believe there are opportunities in the conservation title to consolidate or eliminate duplicative programs in order to achieve savings, while also working more effectively for producers."
Niemeyer, who was testifying on behalf of corn, soybean, wheat, cotton and rice grower groups, as well as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union, said the coalition supports the (conservation) "Title II framework" in the 2012 Farm Bill that the Senate and House Agriculture Committees began developing last fall.
That proposal would consolidate 23 conservation programs into 13, "while maintaining the same tools that were available to farmers in the past," he said.
Niemeyer said growers "are seeking simplification, flexibility, and consolidation in these programs and we believe these goals are achieved in the Senate Agriculture Committee’s recent draft language." The Senate Agriculture Committee began its markup of a 2012 Farm Bill today.
In his testimony, Niemeyer offered specific coalition support for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
"As regulatory pressures on agricultural producers continue to increase, working lands programs have become essential to achieving environmental goals," he said. "[EQIP] remains a popular program that delivers effective conservation dollars to assist landowners who face natural resource challenges on their land."
Niemeyer called CRP "the largest and one of the most important USDA conservation programs, providing many benefits including wildlife habitat, water quality improvements, and outdoor recreation." However, he said the coalition continues to support a gradual decrease of the CRP cap to 25 million acres to achieve savings. Still, "environmentally sensitive or fragile lands should be the program’s priority, with the focus on targeted enrollment and reenrollment of field borders and filter and buffer strips."
Meanwhile, Randy Gordon, acting president of the National Grain and Feed Association, a trade group that has long protested policies accommodating the growth of the ethanol industry that has increased corn – and subsequently feed – prices, offered a series of "reforms" to CRP. He said the modifications to the program would ultimately bring millions of acres out of the program now capped at 32 million, to levels well below the 25 million eyed in current legislative proposals.
Gordon said improved technology has enhanced crop production and minimized the impact of production on what might have formerly been designated sensitive lands. "The CRP has not kept up with that technology," he said, suggesting that too much land currently enrolled in CRP is viable crop production acreage that owners have put in the program to earn generous rental payments. His group is calling for a limit on those payments in the next farm bill.
Subcommittee member and the full ag committee's ranking member, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said the pressure on retaining CRP acreage being applied by soaring crop prices and production land rental rates is resulting in "land that should not be farmed being broken up; treelines going down; old homesteads getting bulldozed."
CRP rates, he said, run about 25% of land rates on the commercial market. "Instead of freezing CRP rates, we need to think about raising them," Peterson said.
"The real pressure is on the big tracts (of land) in the CRP," he said. "If we lose those big tracts, we're going to a lot of the wildlife (habitat) benefits they offer," as well as significant soil and water quality benefits.
Peterson took aim at feed and livestock industry criticism of CRP restraints on using what program officials say is sensitive land for crop production. "We need to focus on the real issues rather than focus on this ideology that we need to take all of this land out of CRP and grow a lot more corn," he said.
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