In recent weeks, much attention, both in Washington and on these opinion pages, has been focused on the federal farm bill. A bipartisan conference committee, including three members of the Minnesota congressional delegation — Reps. Tim Walz and Collin Peterson and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — has started to work diligently on finalizing a compromise agreement before the end of the year.
With so much focus on the commodity and nutrition portions of the farm bill, we must not lose sight of the opportunity to reinstate meaningful conservation measures in it.
Since 1985, farmers receiving subsidies have been required to develop conservation plans for highly erodible land to keep topsoil out of streams and to refrain from draining wetlands. "Conservation compliance" is essentially an agreement between farmers and taxpayers — economic support is provided to our nation's food producers in return for assurances that basic conservation practices will be implemented on farms. Farmers are not prohibited from farming hilly land without a conservation plan or draining wetlands; they just can't receive farm bill subsidies if they do.
This relationship has served farmers and the environment well. In total, 98 percent of corn and soybean producers receiving subsidies are in compliance, as are 95 percent of wheat growers. As a result, conservation practices have been applied to 140 million acres of farmland, keeping 295 million tons of topsoil on those farms annually and significantly reducing the pollution problems in our nation's lakes, rivers and streams. A requirement that farmers not convert wetlands to agriculture production or face the loss of subsidies has kept as much as 3.3 million acres of critical wetlands from being drained.
The critical issue in the 2013 farm bill is whether this relationship between taxpayers and farmers survives. The taxpayer-subsidized safety net is shifting from direct payments to crop insurance premium subsidies. More tax dollars are now spent subsidizing crop insurance premiums than in providing direct payments to farmers. On average, the taxpayer pays for 62 percent of crop insurance premiums. The 2013 farm bill in all likelihood will eliminate direct payments, which currently provide the most significant financial incentive for participation in conservation compliance.
Originally, farmers receiving crop insurance premium subsidies were required to participate in the conservation compliance program. But Congress dropped the conservation requirement for crop insurance premium subsidies to increase participation in the crop insurance program. The vast majority of grain producers are now covered by crop insurance. Restoration of the linkage between crop insurance premium subsidies and conservation compliance is essential if we are to protect nearly three decades of taxpayer investment in conservation.
Wisely, the Senate passed a measure that would reestablish the link between conservation compliance and crop insurance subsidies. The Senate bill would also create a national "Sodsaver provision," which would eliminate premium subsidies for farmers who decide to turn grassland to agriculture production.
We call upon Reps. Walz and Peterson and Sen. Klobuchar to support common-sense conservation by ensuring that the linkage between conservation compliance and crop insurance premium benefits is restored and that a national Sodsaver program is created in the 2013 farm bill. Farmers will continue to have an economic safety net, and taxpayers will receive the benefit of conservation programs that have worked effectively for nearly three decades.
Bill Wenzel is agriculture program director for the Izaak Walton League of America.