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Tossed Out

Tying crop insurance to conservation faces tough road in House

Will the House tie crop insurance to conservation compliance? (jayneandd/Flickr)
Will the House tie crop insurance to conservation compliance? (jayneandd/Flickr)

Now that the Senate has a farm bill (technically the Agriculture, Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013) ready and waiting for reconciliation with a House version, it’s a good time to look at how some of what the Senate passed may play out in the House—and what it all means for the general public as well as for farmers.

The bill would make crop insurance the biggest federal support program for farmers, replacing direct payments entirely for Midwestern corn and soybean growers. And along with the increased role of crop insurance, the bill includes a tie-in with conservation measures. Historically, going back to the 1985 farm bill, certain federal benefits have required farmers to employ conservation measures on highly erodible land, called cross-compliance. Crop insurance subsidies, though, have not previously carried that obligation. 

“We've got to re-link soil conservation to the availability of crop insurance subsidy,” said Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University in Des Moines.

Hamilton said the millions of American taxpayers who fund the farm bill but aren’t direct recipients of its entitlements should appreciate that.

“You’re not on SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps), you're not getting crop insurance,” Hamilton said, “but the issue of whether or not we're spending billions of dollars of public money—and then what that means to how tens of millions of acres of fragile land may be being farmed, or wetlands being drained, or hillsides being allowed to erode—that's something that I think you and all the members of the public have a real significant interest in.”

As for the farmers who would be receiving those crop insurance subsidies, Todd Bogenschutz, an upland game biologist at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in Boone, said many understand you don’t get something for nothing.

“Even among the agricultural community there’s a sense that if you’re going to take federal money there’s strings attached,” Bogenschutz said.

The historical precedent also gives farmers confidence that connecting benefits with conservation can work.

“It’s not been a hindrance [in the past] and I don’t think people are going to see any hindrance tying it to crop insurance,” Bogenschutz said.

Local oversight and a thorough vetting process will help ensure that farmers who want the crop insurance subsidy are able to meet the conservation requirements, Bogenschutz said. He added that when commodity prices are high—as they are now—farmers are less interested in conservation. But as those prices moderate, Bogenschutz expects an uptick in conservation independent of what happens with cross-compliance.  

And the future of cross-compliance is far from assured.

Hamilton points out that the House bill headed to floor debate—possibly beginning next week—doesn’t require farmers to engage in conservation practices to be eligible for crop insurance. He expects cross-compliance will be introduced as a floor amendment, and said its prospects there aren’t great.

“Predictably it might fail but it will at least give you a nose count as to where they are,” Hamilton said. And that outcome could influence what happens in committee.

Provided the House does pass a farm bill, it will end up in a conference committee where the House and Senate will work to iron out differences in legislation. At that point, Hamilton said, a respectable vote on cross-compliance in the House could give Senate agriculture committee chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who supports it, a strong position. But at that late stage, legislators will have much on their plates—likely including a large discrepancy on cuts to SNAP.

So a long hot summer of farm bill negotiations seems probable—though unlike last year, at least this time farm bill issues won’t be competing with a presidential election for lawmakers’ attention.