What's up with conservation and the farm bill


On Thursday, the House Agriculture Committee released its version of the new farm bill, a ginormous piece of legislation passed every five years or so that doles out money not only to farmers, but to food stamp recipients, school lunch programs, and conservation efforts.

The Senate passed its version in May. The House Ag Committee released their discussion draft July 5, and last week the committee hotly debated some of the more controversial items in the bill, making changes to budget cuts, spending programs, and, of course, pulling in some pet peeves and projects. By Thursday all that was over, and now the bill is ready for a full floor debate in the House. (That could happen as early as August, but it could also get pushed back until after the elections. House Speaker Boehner, who controls when bills taken up, dislikes much of the bill and may try to hold it back, although he's facing pushback from Congressmen like Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who wants it to go forward for debate in August.)

The farm bill touches on many of the areas we cover here at High Country News, like how much land is set aside in conservation programs and how farmers are incentivized (or dis-incentivized) to be good stewards. Here's a look at some of the key bill measures being considered in the House and Senate this year. 

Conservation Programs

The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, as it's often called, pays farmers to idle erosion-prone land and seed it with plants beneficial to wildlife. It, like most conservation programs, was at risk for heavy cuts in this farm bill. 

But although all conservation programs will get trimmed this year as legislators try to limit overall spending, the conservation and sportsmen's groups that champion these programs stood their ground and mostly say the cuts are bearable.  The House committee version, however, does cut $1 billion more deeply than the Senate version into the Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers to improve the health of working lands by using fewer chemicals, planting borders beneficial to pollinators, and implementing practices like no-till.

The main way the bill will save on conservation spending is by combining programs. The plan is for fewer programs with more targeted conservation goals, like protecting sage grouse habitat or reducing plowing of native soil in the sensitive prairie pothole region. This is an effort to reduce what USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources Harris Sherman has called "random acts of conservation," where farmers may get paid for implementing practices that have little overall benefit.

Crop insurance

Crop insurance has become this bill's big farm subsidy program. On the face of it, crop insurance might sound pretty benign, but as I've noted, it's frequently an opportunity for both farmers and insurance agents to make out pretty well on the taxpayer's dime. Crop insurance payouts are likely to be in the range of $9 billion a year if this bill passes with its current insurance provisions intact.

One of the big issues in crop insurance is a wonky-sounding item called "conservation compliance." It basically means that if a farmer wants to receive taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance, they should meet basic conservation standards on their farm, like not filling in wetlands, plowing up highly erodible land, or putting virgin prairie into production. The latter has been occurring at record levels in parts of the Dakotas and Montana, and requiring conservation compliance in order to get subsidized insurance could slow the onslaught. Farmers would still be allowed to do those things if they wanted -- it's their land, after all -- but they wouldn't be able to do them while receiving subsidized insurance.

The Senate version of the bill requires all farmers receiving subsidies to comply with conservation measures. The House committee version leaves this out. This could be an issue that will be taken up in House floor debate or, if omitted, reconciled between the two versions when the two chambers go to conference on the bill, at the last minute.

State Ballot Initiatives

A provision in the House bill prevents states from regulating what kinds of agricultural products come into their borders. A recent example of this is California's Proposition 2, which required all eggs sold in the state to meet standards allowing egg-laying chickens to be able to stand up and move freely with enough room to turn around in their cage.  The House language would take away California -- and other states' -- ability to turn away eggs and other products that don't meet their production standards. If that language got into the final bill, it would be a big blow to increasingly popular state measures setting standards for the production of agricultural goods.

Livestock and monopsonies

The House Ag Committee also repealed a 2008 provision that directed the USDA to write and publish a regulation called the GIPSA rule. The first draft of that rule included powerful language aimed at protecting poultry and livestock producers from collusion by a small number of big meatpackers and poultry conglomerates, who are the primary buyers of meat and poultry in the United States.

There isn't much to repeal. USDA had already gutted the draft GIPSA rule after Obama and Congress got pressured by big meatpackers, releasing a final version that provided small cattlemen with little help. And the rule's major proponent in the Agriculture Department, J. Dudley Butler, has left. Yet the final GIPSA rule did give poultry producers some protection from giant chicken packers like Tyson, who have long forced chicken farmers to take contracts with unfair terms. If the repeal stays in the farm bill, poultry producers may lose the few gains they had made. 

School Lunch

I don't normally write about school lunch. But there's a sneaky little language shift in the House version of the bill that deletes the word "fresh," that I found funny. This small word omission, which is not in the Senate version, allows schools to use federal funds to purchase not only "fresh fruits and vegetables" for snacks, but also canned, frozen, and dried versions which can be a lot less healthy. Obviously, the processed fruit producers are behind this one. For some reason I'm getting a real clear image of a California Raisin whispering threateningly in Congressman's ear. (Not that there's anything wrong with raisins.)

Food Stamps

The most significant difference between the House committee bill and the Senate version is in cuts to food assistance programs. The cuts were big enough to get USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack out making statements expressing his disappointment. $11.5 billion in cuts are mostly achieved by changing food stamp eligibility requirements, which would dump about 2 million people off the rolls.

While food stamps are not a conservation issue, nutrition-related spending is the biggest ticket item in the farm bill. The food stamp cuts are likely to rile a large constituency of House Democrats, and as Grist farm policy writer Tom Laskawy astutely notes, this could push the whole bill outside the realm of a compromise. When the bill does move to the House floor, this will be a debate item to watch. It may be a bargaining tool used to get Democratics on board with other Republican provisions. Or, it could be the killing cut, in which case the old farm bill, which expires in September, may simply be extended after the elections.

I wait with bated breath to see what happens next. If you do too, stay tuned for the next edition of: As the Agriculture Policy World Turns. It's sure to be a good one.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.

Image of farmer examining native grass planting courtesy NRCS.

Image of happy chickens courtesy Flickr user Martin Abegglen.

Image of California Raisin courtesy Flickr user JD Hancock.

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