America’s native grasslands are one of our most productive natural resources, providing wildlife habitat, flood mitigation, erosion control, and helping to sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide. Moreover, native grasslands are a critical component of America’s ranching and hunting economies.
Unfortunately, these lands are also some of the most threatened natural resources in the country. A study published last year in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that between 2008 and 2012, 1.6 million acres of 20+ year-old grasslands were torn up, primarily for crop production.
Much of the remaining prairie in the U.S. is not well-suited for crop production and is often referred to as “marginal” land. However, federal policy, and in particular, the federally subsidized crop insurance program, makes it easier for producers to till up and plant on native grasslands by reducing the financial risk of doing so.
Recognizing this, Congress established what is known as a Sodsaver provision in the 2014 Farm Bill. Sodsaver protects grasslands by reducing crop insurance premium subsidies by 50 percentage points on land that is tilled from native prairie.
NSAC Comments on Sodsaver Rule
In September 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published an interim rule to guide implementation of the Sodsaver provision. NSAC submitted comments on the interim rule, and conducted follow up meetings with USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA), which administers the program. Last month, RMA published its final rule for Sodsaver, after taking public comments into consideration.
The final rule includes two important changes in response to our comments, though it falls short on a number of other fronts.
First, the 2014 Farm Bill exempts conversions of less than five acres from Sodsaver. However, neither the bill nor the interim rule defined whether or not those five acres are cumulative over time. In the final rule, RMA agreed with our recommendation that the five-acre exemption (also called a “de minimis” exemption) should be cumulative over time, for an entire farming operation. The alternative would have allowed multiple small conversions each year, without end.
Second, in a guidance issued to producers and crop insurance agents in 2014, RMA stated that farmers can use seed or input cost receipts and invoices to prove that land has been previously tilled (and thus would not be considered “native sod”). In our comments, NSAC recommended that receipts and invoices not suffice as adequate substantiation of cropping history, unless those receipts are accompanied by spatially explicit evidence (e.g., GIS planting or harvest maps) or USDA cropping history documentation. USDA agreed with our recommendation in the final rule, and has removed reference to receipts and invoices from its guidance and policy materials. It has also “revised and issued procedures requiring the use of USDA documentation when available”.
Unfortunately, on two additional issues, the final rule goes against the recommendations of Sodsaver advocates. First, RMA continues to interpret the 2014 Farm Bill to mean that a producer can receive full crop insurance subsidies when they till native prairie, provided that for the first four years of cropping they plant a perennial crop or a non-insured annual crop. Starting in the fifth year, the producer would be able to receive full crop insurance subsidies. This diminishes the intent of the farm bill’s language, which is to disincentivize “sodbusting”. Now that the agency is unwilling or unable to close this loophole, it will need to be addressed in the 2018 Farm Bill.
Second, the 2014 Farm Bill also directs RMA to collect data and report on annual changes in grassland loss. RMA, however, has decided to narrowly interpret the reporting requirement in such a way as to provide little or no useful information to Congress about the scope and rate of new breakings of grassland. Instead, in the agency’s first year of reporting, they looked only at changes in cropland acreage without any assessment of where those acres are coming from. This is unfortunate, and NSAC will continue to press the Department to monitor and report on this important information.
Looking Toward the Next Farm Bill
In addition to the questionable provisions above, the biggest question for the 2018 Farm Bill will be: Is the geographic scope of the Sodsaver provision adequate to discourage grassland loss across the country?
The 2014 Farm Bill limits Sodsaver to only six states – Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Montana, and the Dakotas. This leaves out key prairie states such as Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, which have seen some of the highest rates of grassland conversion in recent years. The 2015 study, for example, revealed “highly concentrated expansion hotspots” in western Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas.
The loss of grasslands is one of the most significant threats to grass-based livestock producers, as well as to grassland birds and the hunting industry that depends on them. Heading into the next farm bill, NSAC will work to expand Sodsaver to protect native grasslands across the country. Crop insurance subsidies should not make it easier to destroy these critical resources. Instead, policy makers must be stewards of the taxpayer dollar and ensure that grasslands exist long into the future.