Harkin pledges to back 'sodsaver' rules in farm bill
Senator Tom Harkin said Tuesday that is version of a farm bill will bar commodity payments, crop insurance coverage and disaster payments to any rangeland converted to cropland after July 1 of this year.
"We need to have farm policy that protects farmers from the vagaries of economic and weather cycles, but also protects the environment from unintended consequences like encouraging crop production on land that should remain in conserving uses like rangeland," said Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "Today, rising prices for commodities are creating powerful incentives to put marginal acres into crop production. So the need for federal policy to actively promote good conservation on working land is greater than ever."
Harkin made his announcement with the release of a study by the General Accountability Office showing that in the state of South Dakota, from 1992 to 1997, more rangeland was converted to cropland than grassland was created by the conservation reserve program.
The GAO found that crop insurance, in particular, is motivating conversion by greatly limiting the risk of producing crops in areas that are marginal as cropland. For example, in the 16 South Dakota counties with the highest rate of conversion, the average net crop insurance payment was more than $13 per acre, nearly twice the payments received in all other counties in the state.
Harkin said that while the GAO looked at experiences in South Dakota, he is certain that other states have had similar experiences.
The GAO study also suggests that farm program payments may be working at cross-purposes with conservation programs, limiting the programs' overall impact on grassland preservation.
Land retirement programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and Grasslands Reserve Program are intended to protect marginal land, but the study finds that farm program payments, growing ethanol demand, new technology, and GMO crops have driven farmers to convert more marginal land into cropland, increasing their annual allowance from commodity payments.
"Current policy has one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake," said Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "We subsidize conversion of grassland to cropping and then attempt to offset the loss through the Conservation Reserve and Grassland Reserve. As good as those conservation programs are, they have trouble keeping up with the subsidies and force the taxpayer to pay a second time to try to preserve the resource. Then when the subsidized new cropping on marginal land fails to produce, the taxpayer is called upon a third time to provide disaster payments. It is time to make our policies more consistent, and passing 'Sodsaver' as part of the 2007 farm bill is a way to start."
Since the Food Security Act of 1985, the 'Sodbuster' conservation compliance program has required producers receiving farm program payments to apply a soil conservation system that does not allow a substantial increase in soil erosion on land converted from native grassland to cropland and was determined by USDA to be highly erodible land (HEL). The GAO study finds that 'Sodbuster' has had little success in conserving sensitive grassland habitat because much of the grassland in the Northern Plains is not considered highly erodible land and therefore does not come under payment restrictions. Moreover, the report quotes USDA county-level officials who say that for lands under the HEL protection, the cost of controlling soil erosion is low relative to the potential profits from converting land to cultivation.