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Low Commodity Prices Spur Senate Interest in Idling Cropland

Senators from the Plains and Upper Midwest pressed for expansion of the long-term CRP during a friendly confirmation hearing for Bill Northey, the USDA nominee who would run the program as agriculture undersecretary. Chairman Pat Roberts said the Agriculture Committee would clear the nominations of Northey and Gregory Ibach “as expeditiously as we can” for a vote by the full Senate.

“Both Mr. Ibach and Mr. Northey have valuable boots-on-the-ground experience. They are both farmers,” said Roberts. Northey, currently Iowa’s elected agriculture secretary, was nominated for undersecretary for farm production and conservation, which oversees farm subsidies, crop insurance, and land stewardship. Ibach, Nebraska’s appointed agriculture director, was nominated for undersecretary for marketing and regulation with a portfolio that ranges from GMO labeling and check-off programs to agencies that combat agricultural pests and diseases.

Senator John Thune of South Dakota asked Northey if the USDA would support his idea of expanding the Conservation Reserve to 30 million acres. Congress set a 24 million-acre cap in the 2014 farm law, as a money-saving step. Enrollment in the program peaked at 36.8 million acres in 2007 before declining during the commodity boom that ended in 2013. During that period, landowners decided they could earn more by growing crops than by idling land in the reserve for 10 years or more in exchange for annual payments.

“The readout I’m getting from farmers is they want an increase,” said Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota. Low market prices are prompting growers to reconsider the reserve, which bases payments on local rates for renting farmland, a more predictable and possibly higher amount than crop revenue at present. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar asked when the USDA would hold a “general sign-up,” when landowners can apply to enroll large acreages in the reserve.

The last general sign-up — the first in three years — ended in February 2016 with the USDA accepting 411,000 acres into the program, the lowest acceptance rate since the reserve was created in 1985. Besides general enrollments, the USDA has allowed immediate enrollment, also called continuous enrollment, for high-priority projects, such as planting shelter belts or installing strips along waterways, that require small amounts of land. To stay within the 24 million-acre limit, the USDA announced five months ago that continuous enrollment was halted except for a federal-state partnership to control farm runoff.

Northey deflected questions about the Conservation Reserve by noting Congress sets the program’s funding and statutory requirements. “These are policy decisions that you are all part of,” he said at one point, and at another time he responded, “I look forward to the conversations if I am confirmed.”

Roberts asked, and Northey quickly assented, if he would oppose cuts to the federally subsidized crop insurance program or any new restrictions on eligibility. The chairman, from Kansas, is a fierce proponent of crop insurance and has routinely asked USDA nominees for assurances of their support for it. Northey described crop insurance as a “very important risk-management tool.” In his written testimony, he said that “crop insurance is the most important part of the farm safety net.”

Earlier in the week, the Senate confirmed Steve Censky as deputy agriculture secretary and Ted McKinney as undersecretary for trade. They are the first Trump nominees confirmed by the Senate to policymaking posts at the USDA since Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in April. The Trump administration is moving at a slow pace in nominating USDA officials.

To watch a video of the hearing or to read the written testimony of Northey and Ibach, click here.

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