WASHINGTON, June 27, 2012 -Conservation and environmental groups, including the Environmental Working Group, hailed Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., when his amendment linking participation in the federal crop insurance program to conservation compliance, passed on the Senate floor last week by 52-47.
At the same time, some commodity group leaders and members of the crop insurance industry seemed stunned by the vote and are working more diligently to stop a similar effort in the House.
“The National Corn Growers Association is very disappointed to see passage of Senator Saxby Chambliss’ conservation compliance for crop insurance amendment in the 2012 farm bill,” said NCGA President Garry Niemeyer. “Our members have spent a significant amount of time discussing this issue and feel this addition to the farm bill would have a negative impact toward America¹s farmers.”
If the provision is included in the final farm bill, producers who participate in most
Federal agricultural programs or the federal crop insurance program will be required to implement soil conservation plans on highly erodible cropland and refrain from draining wetlands for agricultural production.
Even Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said before the vote that she “anticipated” the amendment would not pass. But in the midst of trying to manage a whopping 73 amendments, a handful of Senators appeared to have flipped their expected votes. Stabenow suggested that there might have been some confusion while “we had a combination of things happening.”
“In the underlying bill, the commodity title, the new ARC (Agriculture Risk Coverage) program, is tied to conservation compliance. We have Sod Saver, which is a new conservation piece,” she explained after the vote. “I am certainly not opposed to ultimately moving in that direction. I think for me on both that amendment and the Coburn-Durbin amendment (capping subsidies for persons earning over $750,000 in gross income) it is a question of really doing some significant hearings and thought on crop insurance and the details and impact.”
Other sources were not so surprised with the vote, given the long-running conflicts over commodity policy between Chambliss, who has long championed a more diversified basket of risk management tools that includes target prices, and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who supports the new ARC, with crop insurance as the centerpiece of the farm safety net, and loathes the idea of returning to target prices.
“That vote had little to do with conservation compliance and a lot more to do with behind-the-scenes, regional farm politics,” observed a former Hill staffer who asked not to be identified.
The House Agriculture Committee is not expected to include similar language when they start marking up their version of the new farm bill on July 11. However, Ferd Hoefner, with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, expects the voting margin in support of a similar amendment to be “even bigger on the House floor” than it was in the Senate.
Although critics say the conservation compliance provision will increase paperwork and serve as a disincentive to participate in the crop insurance program—using some of the same arguments from the 1996 farm bill when crop insurance was delinked from compliance measures first added in 1985—others say the impact on producers will be minimal. They point to a means testing amendment on crop insurance, offered by Senators Coburn and Durbin, which is expected to have more impact on crop insurance participation.
“The hand-writing is on the wall,” Hoefner says about conservation compliance. “This is the way the farm bill is moving forward for the future.
“There’s been a grasping at straws by opponents to play up a level of excitiement that’s disproportionate to the impact,” explains Hoefner. “The vast majority of producers have played by this set of rules for a long time. And there’s a five-year transition before anyone has to be in full compliance.”
Former NRCS Chief Bruce Knight, who previously worked as a lobbyist for NCGA, agrees that there will “likely be little impact on 98% of the farms, suggesting that those who want to drain wetlands in the Northern Plains and perhaps some vineyards on steep hills in the Western U.S. could face the most significant changes if this provision makes its way into the final bill.
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