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Groups weigh in on conservation

The Senate Agriculture Committee holds a hearing Tuesday of this week on conservation policy for the next farm bill. Even before that, hundreds of groups are offering support for conservation programs, and one is criticizing flaws in existing conservation policy.

Late last week influential farm groups, American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union and commodity groups representing corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and others endorsed a farm bill conservation title worked out last fall that would have consolidated 23 programs into 13.

“We applaud your efforts to simplify these programs, keeping the same tools but merging them into fewer programs,” the groups said in a letter to Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and the ranking Republican, Pat Roberts of Kansas.

“We also support your efforts to focus on working lands conservation,” the groups said. “ These programs have grown to be the largest in the conservation portfolio, and for good reason. Farmers value their ability to partner with USDA in protecting and conserving soil, water and other natural resources, particularly as a tool to help them prevent and/or comply with regulation.”

Monday, another letter to Senate and House ag committee leaders from 643 national, state and local organizations showed consensus on maintaining strong conservation programs.

Voluntary agreements between USDA and landowners and foresters have helped keep land in agriculture and forestry while preserving natural habitat and saving productivity and the economic value of soil and water, they said. 

“The result is real conservation with multiple benefits for every region of America,” the letter said. “Not the least of these is helping landowners to stay on the land as stewards of America’s legacy of natural resources.”

The bottom line from this group: “…we urge you to reauthorize the Farm Bill in a manner that sustains the integrity and effectiveness of the Conservation Title and maintains conservation funding that meets our national needs.”

The national groups signing the letter included American Farmland Trust, Ducks Unlimited, Environmental Defense Fund, National Association of Conservation Districts, National Catholic Rural Life Conference, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Pheasants Forever, and the Soil and Water Conservation Society. 

Going its own way, the Environmental Working Group on Monday released a report, “Conservation Compliance: A Retrospective…and Look Ahead.”

EWG calls for linking crop insurance to conservation compliance, a requirement of the 1985 Farm Bill that was dropped in the 1996 law. 

The report was written by Max Schnepf, who edited the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation for more than two decades for the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

Schnepf reviewed years of reports that showed spotty enforcement of conservation compliance at best, citing investigations by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General and the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office. He shows that soil erosion dropped sharply from 1982 to 1997, then progress stalled, with evidence that sheet and rill erosion, as measured by USDA, is increasing again.

Yet, Schnepf also found broad support among farmers for linking conservation compliance to commodity programs. 

“Conservation compliance is supported by farmers and clearly works when it is effectively enforced,” Schnepf writes. “And in the current era of constrained federal and state budgets and dramatically reduced allocations for incentive-based conservation programs, it is timely to take a fresh look at the state of conservation compliance as a central element of national agricultural policy.”

Several of the 643 groups calling for a strong conservation title to the farm bill also favor linking crop insurance to conservation compliance, but that letter doesn’t mention the issue. And the EWG did not sign the letter. The American Farm Bureau Federation, which signed the shorter letter backing last fall’s conservation proposal, opposes requiring conservation compliance in order to buy federally-subsidized crop insurance. 

The Senate Ag Committee’s conservation hearing will be webcast here.

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