I recently wrote an entry about the farm bill currently cooling its heels in the halls of Congress. The ongoing delays in getting this critical legislation passed has prompted a coalition of more than 40 agricultural organizations to join forces in the lobbying effort to get the bill passed. The coalition is called Farm Bill Now and its membership includes organizations representing particular crops, dairy farmers, state and local governments, energy groups, farm co-operatives, financial organizations and other farm associations. The effort is backed by two of the largest farm groups, the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Although the farm bill has a connotation in the popular mind of being concerned only with the nation’s farmers, in reality it is a bill with a very wide scope. Research, environmental protection efforts, food programs for impoverished children, international trade, and employment legislation are all affected by the bill. More than 23 million American jobs are directly or largely involved with the agriculture sector. One of the most important element of the bill in the short run concerns drought relief, as American farmers face one of the worst droughts in modern history. In the long run, the bill is important to the fiscal health of the Federal government, as it contains important spending cuts in the ongoing effort to reduce the budget deficit.

The Farm Bill Now coalition has created a web site to give citizens the chance to send messages of support for the bill to their Congressional delegation. A meeting in late August at the Farm Progress Show in Iowa was the site for a discussion by farmers and farm groups of how to proceed. In addition, on September 12, the group held a rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. to encourage Congress to pass the bill. The current farm bill expired at the end of September, meaning many provisions of the old bill have lapsed and farmers are facing a number of real and serious issues.

Bear in mind this wisdom from the Farm Bill Now website:

Calling the farm bill the “farm bill” suggests its impact is limited only to farms and to the rural areas to which they are so closely tied. It’s really a jobs bill. A food bill. A conservation bill. A research bill. An energy bill. A trade bill. In other words, it’s a bill that affects every American. 

The farm bill affects our nation’s ability to provide the necessities of life for a global population projected to pass 9 billion by 2050. Here at home, it affects an industry that provides 23 million–or 1 in every 12–American jobs.

But…

 House GOP Punts on Farm Bill

September 20, 2012

(CNN)–House Republican leaders announced Thursday they will not take action on a new farm bill until after the November elections — a sign of sharp internal GOP divisions on a critical political issue for many members of Congress.

“We will deal with the farm bill after the election,” said Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “The current situation that we face is we’ve got people who believe there’s not enough reform in the farm bill that came out of (the House Agriculture) committee, (and) we’ve got others who believe that there’s too much reform in the bill that came out of the committee.”

Boehner indicated GOP leaders do not believe they currently have the votes to pass either a short-term extension or a more comprehensive five-year measure.

The current five-year law establishing various levels of federal support for farmers and ranchers–now struggling with drought in many parts of the country–expires September 30. A failure to pass a new law won’t impact existing federal support in 2012, though it would have a significant impact on agricultural markets in 2013, according to Dale Moore, a public policy deputy at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

While the Democratic-run Senate passed a comprehensive $969 billion replacement bill in June through a rare bipartisan 64-35 vote, numerous conservatives in the Republican-controlled House have balked at the overall price tag and rising cost of food stamps included in the measure.

Read full story here.

 

With No Farm Bill, Wither Conservation Compliance?

In the 1985 Farm Bill, Congress decided that as a quid pro quo for federal farm assistance, farmers receiving taxpayer support should control soil erosion on highly erodible lands used to grow subsidized crops. The policy principle was straightforward and widely embraced in conservation and agriculture policy circles: taxpayer support for agriculture should not inadvertently subsidize degradation of natural resources or the environment. Parallel policies were authorized in the 1985 law to prevent subsidies from encouraging conversion of fragile lands and wetlands to crop production. In order to maintain their eligibility for federal farm benefits such as commodity crop subsidies and disaster payments, farmers were required to develop and implement a government-approved soil conservation plan specifying soil conservation practices. Common erosion reduction practices include: rotating crops, minimizing tillage, leaving soil covered with crop residue after harvest, and installing grassed buffers, etc. This program was called the Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC) Compliance provision or “conservation compliance,” for short. Farmers were given 10 years (until 1995) to fully implement the soil conservation plans.

Ray McCormick, Indiana Farmer and President of the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, shares his views of the importance of conservation practices on the farm.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) attributes the HELC planning and compliance process with widespread adoption of conservation systems, which made unprecedented progress in reducing erosion over these 10 years. HELC compliance, coupled with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), reduced erosion by about 40 percent (1.2 billion tons) from 3.07 billion tons in 1982 to 1.9 billion tons in 1997 (national soil survey years which encompass the 1985 to 1995 time period). USDA attributes about 25 percent of that reduction to HELC compliance requirements. HELC compliance is also credited with a “technology-forcing” effect that helped reduce erosion on cropland not subject to HELC plans. However, since full implementation of HELC compliance plans in 1995, there has been little additional progress in reducing erosion. According to the National Resources Inventory (NRI) survey, approximately 100 million acres of cropland in the U.S.—nearly one-third of the 368 million acres of cropland nationwide—continue to erode at rates deemed “unsustainable.” Sediment from cropland causes a variety of serious problems as it pollutes drinking water sources, clogs downstream reservoirs that include hydroelectric facilities, smothers aquatic life, and forces farmers to use more fertilizer to make up for reduced soil fertility. Moreover, since 1985, mounting scientific evidence has identified fertilizer run-off and animal manure from cropland as a major source of water nutrient pollution. Nutrient run-off was not a consideration in the development or implementation of HELC policy or plans. Another, even more dramatic development since the passage of the 1985 Farm Bill and the HELC policy is the ethanol boom. While experts are still trying to determine what the net impact of expanding corn acreage and production will be on natural resources and the environment, it is clear that ethanol production is already leading to significant changes in cropping patterns, and to growing demand for corn–both of which could have adverse impacts on water quality and soil erosion, increased fertilizer and pesticide application, and land use change. Current HELC policy and soil conservation plans may be inadequate to deal with potential emerging environmental impacts of the ethanol boom. (Source: Environmental Working Group)

Conservation Compliance: A Key Part of Incentive-Based Conservation

‘Let’s do the right thing: Reattach compliance to crop insurance…’

A statement from American Farmland Trust:

“I appreciate Secretary Vilsack’s support of conservation incentives, but I believe that he has created a false choice between incentive-driven conservation and conservation compliance,” said Jon Scholl, President of American Farmland Trust (AFT). “Conservation compliance is nothing more than an incentive for farmers with highly sensitive lands to follow a few basic conservation practices. When I talk to farmers, they recognize that conservation compliance is crucial for the long-term health of our soil.”

Put in place in the 1985 Farm Bill, conservation compliance is a set of minimum conservation standards that farmers with sensitive lands must follow in order to receive federal farm subsidies. Compliance helps reduce erosion and protect our productive soils on the farmland that is most vulnerable to erosion, while also protecting wetlands. No farmer is required to follow conservation compliance, but if a farmer is not in compliance, USDA will temporarily withhold certain benefits—including commodity, disaster, and conservation payments and loans—until the farmer comes back into compliance.

Currently, compliance requirements do not attach to the federal insurance premium support that farmers receive when they purchase crop insurance. Compliance was attached to crop insurance subsidies in 1985, but was later removed in 1996 to help encourage producers to purchase crop insurance. Today, program participation is not an issue, with over 80 percent of commodity farmers signed up. As crop insurance becomes the centerpiece of the farm safety net going forward, and direct payments go away, farmers will have much less of an incentive to follow conservation compliance.

Jon Scholl, president of American Farmland Trust, explains the background of conservation compliance and the need to relink conservation to crop insurance in the Farm Bill.

“This is a critical juncture for U.S. agriculture,” added Scholl. “We have a choice in this farm bill between moving forward and falling backward, and for the good of agriculture and our key natural resources, we must move forward. The conservation compliance system works, and it should be attached to the core of the farm support system, regardless of whether that’s a traditional commodity program, a revenue program, or crop insurance. This is just a basic accountability measure.”

Conservation compliance has contributed 40 percent of the erosion reduction on our most vulnerable land since 1982, saving at least 295 million tons of soil per year. With demand for agriculture production doubling by 2050 to meet the needs of a growing world population, we cannot afford to lose our precious soil.

In addition, compliance has greatly reduced conversion of ecologically important wetlands on farms, preserving the critical benefits they provide for flood protection, nutrient filtering and wildlife habitat.

“Despite what you may have heard, attaching compliance to the crop insurance premium support would have a pretty minimal impact back on the farm,” Scholl continued. “Farmers across the United States would still be able to buy crop insurance and get operating loans from their bank. Anyone out of compliance simply wouldn’t receive the crop insurance premium support until they come back into compliance. NRCS and FSA would still do compliance checks using the same system we have in place now, and crop insurance agents would not have an additional enforcement role.”

Data from the USDA Economic Research Service show that the vast majority of farmers who purchase crop insurance are already covered by compliance because of the commodity, conservation, disaster, and loan programs that they participate in. This is true for 95 percent of wheat production, 98 percent of corn and soybean production, and over 99 percent of cotton and rice production. This means that applying conservation compliance to crop insurance would affect less than 5 percent of commodity production in this country. Moreover, since compliance provisions only apply to roughly 25 percent of U.S. cropland, the real effect on farmers would be even smaller than these numbers indicate.

“So let’s do the right thing, reattach compliance to crop insurance, and keep this basic incentive for farmers to follow minimum conservation standards on vulnerable soils and wetlands,” adds Scholl. “It will keep our conservation system incentive-based and help us all in the long run.”

Alex Tiller

Hello, and thanks for checking out my blog.  My name is Alex Tiller and I grew up in rural Ohio (Clark County) where my family still owns farmland (corn and beans). I am a member of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers and am also an agribusiness author/blogger. I write about commercial farming, family farms, organic food production, sustainable agriculture, the local food movement, alternative renewable energy, hydroponics, agribusiness, farm entrepreneurship, and farm economics and farm policy. I visit lots of farms in different areas of the country (sometimes the world) that grow all kinds of different crops and share what I learn with you through this blog. You can contact me via email by clicking here.