March 16, 2012
On Friday, March 16, a broad coalition of groups held a congressional briefing to present their views to Senate legislative aides on the issue of conservation compliance and Sodsaver. The briefing, entitled “Conserving Soil, Sod, and Wetlands in the 2012 Farm Bill: the Future of Conservation Compliance and Sodsaver,” examined the need to relink highly erodible land (HEL) and wetland conservation to subsidized crop insurance. It also detailed the importance of establishing a nationwide Sodsaver provision to prevent public subsidization of the destruction of the last remaining native and pristine grasslands in the country.
Two farmers flew in to Washington D.C. from the Midwest and Plains States to for the briefing. Varel Bailey, a farmer in Cass County, Iowa and former chairman of the National Corn Growers Association, spoke about the need to re-attach HEL and wetland compliance to crop insurance, explaining that federally subsidized crop insurance drives agricultural production on marginal lands. According to Bailey, reattaching conservation compliance to crop insurance is the most effective way to ensure that highly erodible soils are not lost. Farmers would still be allowed to farm HEL, but would be required to implement a conservation plan to maintain soil quality, quantity, and productivity into the future.
Following Mr. Bailey, Jim Faulstich, a rancher from Highmore, South Dakota told of the loss of native prairie and the ranching businesses that depend on it in his home state. Mr. Faulstich explained the need for a provision to protect the last remaining prairie in the U.S., and noted that the framework for this protection already exists. Both the Senate and House versions of the 2008 Farm Bill included a nationwide Sodsaver provision that would discourage conversion of native prairie to cropland by limiting crop insurance subsidies on native prairie converted to cropland. Unfortunately, the final bill had weakened Sodsaver provision – limited to Prairie Pothole states – that required the approval of state governors and was not implemented. Mr. Faulstich argued for a strong, nationwide Sodsaver provision in the next farm bill.
Relinking highly erodible land and wetland conservation requirements to crop insurance subsidies, as well as establishing a nationwide Sodsaver provision, are Farm Bill priorities for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. In preparation for the briefing, the groups developed a FAQ to address a variety of questions that producer associations and crop insurance industry have recently raised in regard to reattaching conservation requirements to subsidized crop insurance.
The answers clarify a number of misconceptions, pointing out that producers will not be automatically out of compliance in the event of a weather event, producers will still be able to purchase crop insurance if they are out of compliance, and nearly all commodity producers are already subject to conservation compliance requirements linked to commodity program subsidies.
Moving Forward Toward the 2012 Farm Bill
Basic conservation requirements to protect against soil erosion and wetland drainage were made a condition of receiving farm subsidies in 1985. Conservation compliance dramatically reduced soil erosion on farmland and protected wetlands, keeping land productive and important natural resources intact. But in the 1996 Farm Bill Congress decoupled conservation compliance from crop insurance.
Today, the biggest farm subsidy paid by U.S. taxpayers is for crop insurance. With rise in the prominence of crop insurance and with proposed changes to the farm safety net that will accelerate this rise, compliance should be reattached to crop insurance subsidies, as it was up until 1996.
Producers and land investors who convert valuable native prairie and prime grasslands to crop production should not be rewarded by the public with commodity and insurance subsidies on those acres. Conservation compliance has protected the productivity of farmland by significantly decreasing soil erosion and protecting wetlands and other sensitive lands. The majority of producers who participate in current crop insurance programs also comply with conservation compliance through farm programs. With the receipt of subsidies comes a responsibility to protect resources for future generations. Most farmers agree with this, but are placed at a competitive disadvantage when poor stewards are allowed to cut conservation corners and reap the same public benefits. Conservation compliance also saves the government millions of dollars in disaster and crop insurance payments by discouraging the cultivation of marginal lands, while also protecting vital natural resources. Both Sodsaver and compliance on crop insurance are effective, efficient, manageable mechanisms that should be included in the 2012 Farm Bill.