Note to Readers — This is the third in a series of posts on the 2012 Farm Bill reported out of the Senate Agriculture Committee on April 26.
With much of the rhetoric and substance of the new, in-the-making 2012 Farm Bill revolving around the rapidly growing and expensive crop insurance title, major corresponding attention has been given by the conservation community to the relationship between insurance subsidies and conservation. Two campaigns have been launched, one to restore highly erodible land and wetland conservation requirements in return for the taxpayer paying the majority of farmers’ insurance premiums and one to prevent subsidizing the destruction of prime grasslands.
We are thrilled to report that the Senate Agriculture Committee’s version of the Farm Bill, as passed out of Committee on April 26, includes a nationwide Sodsaver provision to protect native prairie across the country. The Sodsaver provision was originally filed as an amendment on April 23 by Republican Senators John Thune (R-SD), Mike Johanns (R-NE) and Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and subsequently was accepted into the revised draft bill presented by Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-KS) on April 25. NSAC commends these Senators for their commitment to conserving our most valuable natural resources.
While the Sodsaver provision in the Senate bill does not, as we had proposed, deny all crop insurance subsidies on newly broken out land, it does provide for a 50 percent point reduction in the subsidy. It also includes two important provisions that prevent people from gaming the system to increase their revenue insurance coverage at the expense of taxpayers and the environment. One keeps the newly broken out land isolated from other crop acres the producer may have when calculating insurable yields. The other requires the operator to take a percentage of the county average yield until being able to show a multi-year yield history.
The Thune amendment to the Senate bill also prohibits commodity program benefits from being earned on newly broken out land.
Bringing native lands into production reduces available grazing land, increases long-term costs due to erosion and nutrient loss, and ultimately leads to lower water quality, reduced flood mitigation capacity and lost outdoor recreation activities.
This is not the first time that a national Sodsaver provision was included in the Senate Agriculture Committee’s version of the farm bill. A full-fledged Sodsaver provision to prohibit crop insurance subsidies, disaster assistance, and other farm program payments on land that is broken from native sod was successfully included with broad support in both the House and Senate versions of the 2008 Farm Bill, but was dismantled in conference and became a voluntary project that never got off the ground. NSAC strongly supports the new provision and will work to see it is included in the final 2012 Farm Bill.
Highly Erodible Land and Wetland Conservation
While the Senate bill does reattach attach highly erodible land and wetland conservation requirements to Title 1 commodity payments, conservation program payments, and federal loan programs, we are disappointed to report that it does not do so for the largest of all farm payment categories, federal crop insurance subsidies.
This is an increasingly important piece of the conservation toolbox, as federal crop insurance subsidies continue to grow, soil continues to erode on 100 million acres at unsustainable levels, and wetlands continue to be lost. Federal crop insurance, which incentivizes agricultural production on marginal lands, is perfectly suited for highly erodible land and wetland conservation measures. Reattaching conservation requirements to insurance subsidies is a commonsense move that we intend to pursue on the Senate floor and in the House.
To read more about highly erodible land and wetland conservation compliance, visit our blog posts on three recent letters, one from former U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture, one from former Chiefs of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and one from 15 national organizations, all delivered to the Senate Agriculture Committee.