The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 9, 2014

Cross column: Win Some, Lose Some with New Farm Bill

By John Cross jcross@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — In the game of politics, you win some, lose some.

What sportsmen and conservationists got in the new, five-year Farm Bill that President Obama signed into law on Friday possibly could have been better.

Then again, considering how business is done in Washington D.C. these days, it also could have been much, much worse.

The most important conservation provisions of the new Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2014 — commonly called the Farm Bill — include linking conservation compliance practices to obtaining crop insurance and a “Sodsaver” provision targeted for six states in the Upper Midwest.

Other provisions in the bill include $40 million to fund programs that encourage private landowners to allow public access, greater emphasis on preserving wildlife habitat through existing programs, and the consolidation of some existing federal conservation programs to make them more efficient.

Those are in the win column.

But in the lost column, funding for the Conservation Reserve Program was cut by $6 billion and maximum acreage enrollments reduced from the current 32 million acres to only 24 million acres.

The popular program which for nearly 30 years has paid landowners to take marginal acres out of production and plant them in grasses has been the foundation for wildlife habitat in farm country.

Minnesota congressman Tim Walz, a member of the House Agriculture Committee and ranking member of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy, and Forestry, said that he was satisfied with the legislation.

“Overall, considering the atmosphere we’re in, I’m very proud of what we did,” he said.

A key conservation component of the new farm bill, he said, was linking farm insurance once again to conservation compliance.

“We’re saying that you as a landowner certainly have a right to break up your marginal land but you’re not going to get government help to do it,” he said.

Walz said that while he wasn’t pleased with the reduced funding for CRP and acreage reductions, the reality of current farm economics trumped the popular conservation program.

“That was a tough one,” he said. “It breaks my heart to see those CRP acres coming down but with what we can pay, it makes it very difficult to make the numbers work.”

However, Walz said the Sodsaver provision, which should discourage landowners in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Montana and the Dakotas from converting native grassland into row crops by limiting crop insurance subsidies on those acres, might act to offset some of those losses.

Statements released from national conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation and Pheasants Forever universally hailed the 2014 Farm Bill’s conservation measures.

Dave Nomsen, vice president of government affairs for the conservation group Pheasants Forever, said that overall, his organization was pleased with the bill.

“First of all, it’s very good news that it’s done,” he said. “It’s been an agonizing two-plus years.”

He said that once again tying crop insurance to conservation compliance along with the new Sodsaver provision were particularly vital components to a new farm bill if it was going to address critical conservation concerns.

Nomsen said that Walz, who served on the Farm Bill Conference Committee which crafted the legislation, deserved much of the credit for getting those two components included.

“He really was a champion in all of this,” Nomsen said. “Tim’s leadership was critical.”

Another conservation component within the bill included a consolidation of 23 government conservation programs into just 13, which Nomsen characterized as “tweaking” that should streamline the administration of easement programs such as the Wetland and Grassland Reserve.

“We’re satisfied with the bill, but rather than it being an end point, we really see it as a starting point,” he said.

The real measure of success of what lawmakers crafted for 2014 Farm Bill, he said, ultimately will be measured a few years down the road by the amount of grasslands and wetlands that still can be found in the countryside.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at jcross@mankatofreepress.com.