WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2016 - When Congress debated the 2014 farm bill, an unusual alliance between farm groups, the insurance industry and conservation organizations was key to fighting off attempts to cut the insurance program. But there are signs that alliance might be fraying even before lawmakers start work on the next farm bill.
At the very least, the industry has work to do to ensure it will have supporters outside farm groups in fighting coming attempts to impose a means test on the program, cap premium subsidies or to cut returns to companies and agents.
During negotiations over the 2014 farm bill, about a dozen conservation organizations or groups representing local and state conservation agencies reached a deal with farm and insurance groups to oppose cuts to the federal insurance program in return for the industry support for re-linking conservation compliance to crop insurance.
A that the conservation organizations signed in 2013 declared opposition to “any provisions that provide for means testing or payment limitations on crop insurance premium assistance or indemnities. We also oppose any reduction in premium subsidies.” An amendment to cut premium subsidies for farmers making more than $750,000 a year had passed the Senate handily in 2012 and again in 2013, but with the united opposition the measure died quietly in conference committee.
With an eye on building a similar coalition as the insurance industry had in 2013, the president of the American Association of Crop Insurers, David Graves, said he has started holding a “series of small meetings that will grow in size.” But he says it’s too early to have anything to report.
At least one conservation group that signed the 2013 letter, Ducks Unlimited, is still adhering to that deal. The group signed onto a letter with farm groups last fall opposing the $3 billion in cuts to crop insurance that were included in the budget deal between Congress and the White House.
“Ducks Unlimited believes our nation’s farmers and ranchers need a strong safety net that is provided through crop insurance,” said spokeswoman Tucker Clare Nelson. “We have honored and will continue to honor the conservation compliance and crop insurance agreement from the last farm bill, and will work with our friends in conservation and agriculture to ensure that the farm bill that was just passed isn’t opened up at this time.”
But another group that was party to the 2013 deal, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, says it would consider further restrictions to crop insurance.
Whit Fosburgh, the group’s president and CEO, said in a statement that “the time and place to make those changes is in the next farm bill, with all of the stakeholders at the table. To that end, we've started discussions with sportsmen, conservation, commodity, and insurance groups about modifications that will save taxpayer dollars and improve conservation outcomes while continuing to support working lands.” TRCP wouldn’t name the other organizations with which the group is talking.
The National Wildlife Federation is taking a neutral stance on proposed restrictions to crop insurance. “Payment caps and means tests don’t do anything for the environment, so we have stayed out of those battles,” said Julie Sibbing, the group’s senior director of agriculture and forestry programs.
Pheasants Forever hasn’t decided what its policy will be. “It is my hope we can work closely within the conservation, agricultural, and commodity communities to reach consensus on policies and programs that mutually benefit farmers and ranchers as well as hunters and other wildlife conservationists,” said Dave Nomsen, the group’s vice president of government affairs.
The National Audubon Society is in the process of developing its policy for the next farm bill. The group’s legislative director, Brian Moore, says he thinks the crop insurance program could be improved by factoring soil quality data and other measures into coverage.
The is supporting research and analysis to improve the understanding of the correlations between yield risk, soil type and conservation practices, said AGree Executive Director Deborah Atwood. The group will soon release some background papers that “are intended to contribute to thoughtful dialogue,” she said. The views won’t represent official AGree positions.
There could be attempts to cut crop insurance as soon as this spring or summer, if the fiscal 2017 Agriculture appropriations spending bills reach the House or Senate floor. But leaders of the Senate and House Agriculture committees will try to delay the insurance debate until they draft the next farm bill, likely starting in 2017. The 2014 bill is set to expire Sept. 30, 2018.
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