Farm bill cuts would cut conservation

Usually opposed to governmental regulation, farmer Danny Barker hopes the farm bill will tie federal subsidies to compliance with conservation measures. (Frank Morris/Harvest Public Media)
Usually opposed to governmental regulation, farmer Danny Barker hopes the farm bill will tie federal subsidies to compliance with conservation measures. (Frank Morris/Harvest Public Media)
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Frank Morris is the news director at KCUR in Kansas City and a senior contributor to Harvest Public Media.

Many environmentalists are worried that the next farm bill could gut long-standing conservation programs designed to take farmland out of production and set it aside as natural habitat.

The Upside of an Unpopular Program

For years, a farm program called Direct and Countercyclical Payments has incentivized conservation. The subsidy shells out almost $5 billion a year to land owners, but only if they comply with some environmental regulations. They can’t drain wetlands, plow up certain grassland, and they have to take steps to curb runoff.

But Direct Payments, roundly thrashed as a giveaway to rich farmers, will most certainly die with the next farm bill. That could set up a possible vacuum, according to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“The thing that we use to connect conservation compliance is going away, so you have to replace it,” Vilsack said. “Some want to replace it with nothing. Others want to replace it with crop insurance.”

Most farmers rely heavily on federally subsidized crop insurance – it has become far and away the biggest farm program. Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University, says the Senate version of the farm bill continues to take a tough line on environmental compliance, even as it substitutes crop insurance programs for the Direct Payments subsidy.

“They’re trying to make sure that if you fail on that, there’s a very heavy stick that comes with that failure,” Hart said.

The House, though, takes a softer approach, according to Iowa State’s Bruce Babcock.    

The House bill ties conservation compliance to other programs that aren’t worth so much to farmers,” Babcock says.

Programs that would pay farmers when market prices for their crops fall below certain levels, or when bad weather cuts into their yields, a bit. But, Craig Cox with the Environmental Working Group, notes that in most years these new subsidies won’t disperse as much money to as many farms as Direct Payments did. He says that’s a problem.   

“That’s going to be a disaster to the environment,” Cox warned. “And the cuts to the conservation programs are incredibly irresponsible.”

Usually opposed to governmental interference in any form, many farmers are rooting for conservation compliance. Danny Barker, a farmer from Lone Jack, Mo., says it is vital.

“Not all regulations are bad,” says Barker. “Most are, but some are not. And this – thank goodness for conservation – is something that we really do need as an industry.”

Barker has graded terraces into his fields to trap rain and keep his precious soil from running down stream. Like many farmers, he feels a strong sense of stewardship for the land.  But Barker says record high crop prices, and huge profits in recent years, have sparked a gold rush of sorts, with some “corporate farmers” “mining the soil,” as he calls it.

“Basically they pillage and plunder, so to speak,” Barker says. “But, over a 10-year period, you get your soil washed down to bedrock, and that’s not good for anybody.”

That’s the kind of thing conservation compliance has sought to keep in check.

Big Cuts to the Conservation Reserve Program

Both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill cut the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP rents environmentally-sensitive land from farmers in exchange for the producers taking it out of production and planting wildlife habitat. The House and Senate would reduce the amount of farmland the government can rent from farmers under the CRP by at least 7 million acres, or about nine Rhode Islands.   

The program has been shrinking on its own for a decade, so the cap reductions won’t have much of an immediate impact. The same high crop prices and strong profits that have led farmers to use farm ground more intensively have prompted many more to take their land out of the CRP and put it back to work growing crops. The new lower caps reflect current involvement in the program, but could lock farmers out of participating should the markets retreat and make the CRP arrangement more attractive.

Congress is up against a tight deadline to try to come up with a farm bill. A conference committee is currently taking up the differences between House and Senate versions – chiefly how much to cut food stamps – and most say they hope to pass a new bill before the end of the year.

Bills in both chambers would set up programs to help farmers keep from losing as much money in market down-turns, or lousy growing seasons. The House bill is much more generous to farmers. Cox says both approaches will make farming less risky, encourage investment in the industry, and add to the toll bad farming takes on the land.

More: Largely unpopular, direct payment subsidies persist