Decades of farmland conservation gains at risk

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Farmers managing more than 140 million acres of highly erodible land have implemented practices that reduced the amount of soil washed into streams from “highly erodible” lands by 40 percent. This accounts for more than 300 million tons of soil saved per year. Annualized since 1985, that is about 8 billion tons of soil saved on the farm, allowing it to remain a productive asset for growing our nation’s food and fiber, rather than washing into our rivers, lakes and streams, or blowing away with the wind. Moreover, between 1.5 and 3.3 million acres of wetlands have been saved under conservation compliance.
 
In all, more than one million conservation plans have been developed and implemented under the conservation compliance provision. Today, farmers must be in compliance in order to be eligible to participate in the federal crop and income support programs that have stabilized both farm income and the American food supply. This compact has served both farmers and taxpayers very well and should be renewed.


Congress is moving toward reform of the farm safety net, increasing the role that federal crop insurance plays. Unlike the current suite of primary farm support programs, crop insurance is not yet part of the conservation compliance compact. Looking ahead, the Senate farm bill included a bipartisan amendment that links federal subsidies for crop insurance premiums to conservation compliance; the House Agriculture Committee approved version does not include a similar provision.

Congress must bring all income support programs under the conservation compliance umbrella, including eligibility for crop and revenue insurance premium subsidies.

Conservation compliance is needed to protect the gains we’ve made. Because most farmers are currently covered by compliance, extending conservation compliance to crop insurance premium subsidies will not impact significant numbers of new farmers. USDA data show that less than two percent of corn and soybean, five percent of wheat, and less than one percent of cotton and rice production will be impacted if we act now. However, failure to align crop insurance with conservation compliance could allow huge numbers of conservation plans to lapse as the crop insurance becomes the heart of the farm safety net, and as the vagaries of extreme weather and volatile prices may encourage additional plantings of crops on highly erodible lands, thus potentially undoing the benefits achieved in the past..

This change would not take away farmers’ crop insurance or put their operating loans at risk. Farmers newly covered by conservation compliance would have five years to design and implement a conservation plan. Just as today, producers initially out of compliance would have ample opportunity to come under compliance to ensure their eligibility for the crop insurance premium subsidy. Any farmers who chose not to comply would still be able to purchase crop insurance, just without the federal subsidy. The provisions are fair to farmers, and also fair to the taxpayers who are providing the dollars for the subsidy.
 
The bottom-line: conservation compliance is a proven, effective conservation tool. Without conservation compliance, farmland would be less productive, the threats to our rivers, lakes, wetlands, and soils would be even more severe, and the cleanup bill would be even higher.
 
Conservation compliance must be attached to the crop insurance premium subsidy as part of farm bill so we can continue to protect our soil and water for future generations. Failure to do so will jeopardize the future of food production for all of us.
 
Glickman served as secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton Administration. Moseley served as deputy secretary of Agriculture in the George W. Bush Administration.
 
 

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