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Senate tacks on conservation compliance

When it approved a new farm bill Tuesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee formally adopted a conservation compliance compromise worked out between farm groups and conservation advocates.

The compromise drops a requirement that farmers and investors making more than $750,000 a year pay a bigger share of their insurance premiums. Dropping it is the price of getting major farm groups behind something they had opposed--linking a requirement for eligibility for crop insurance premium subsidies to conservation rules that are similar ones farmers must meet to get payments from farm programs.

The committee rejected several amendments from Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) to weaken conservation compliance or, in one amendment, to not require conservation compliance for crop insurance subsidies.

Hoeven said that with compliance already required for commodity programs, it's not needed for crop insurance. At a time when farmers are already dealing with many new government rules, ""we're adding yet another layer of compliance and regulatory burden and cost."

Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss, said he shares Hoeven's reservations about regulatory burdens, but "farmers should comply with conservation if they're going to get assistance from the federal government."

The compromise has the support of everyone from the National Wildlife Federation to the American Farm Bureau, said Chambliss, who offered an amendment during floor debate last year that required conservation compliance for crop insurance. His amendment passed but was considered unworkable by some farm groups.

Chambliss said he doesn't see the new compliance rules in this year's Senate farm bill as a burden.

"Folks are going to go to the ASCS [now called the Farm Service Agency]….They're going to check one more box," Chambliss said.

Groups in the Conservation Compliance Coalition Tuesday praised the Senate Committee for putting their ideas into the farm bill.

“We have been a strong advocate for an effective crop and natural resource safety net in the 2013 Farm Bill," said Earl Garber, president of the National Association of Conservation Districts. "The conservation compliance agreement, made possible by the leadership of Chairwoman [Debbie] Stabenow and Ranking Member [Thad] Cochran, ensures at a policy level the thoughtful implementation of compliance that balances the need for natural resource conservation with a robust agriculture economy.”

But not all groups that back stronger conservation supported the compromise.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said it was disappointed by the dropping of lower subsidies for high income farmers.

Ferd Hoefner, who lobbies for the group, told later on Tuesday that an amendment to reinstate that income test is likely to be offered on the floor of the Senate when the entire body considers a farm bill, something that could start as early as next week.

An amendment to cut premium subsidies by 15 percentage points for those earning above $750,000 was offered last year by Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Dick Durbin (D-IL). It passed with two-thirds support.

Hoefner is skeptical that compliance will be enforced by a short-staffed USDA. And even if USDA finds a farmer not in compliance, it can't take away crop insurance subsidies if USDA "fails to evaluate the certification in a timely manner." The bill doesn't define "timely manner."

Also, under the compromise agreement added to the bill, farmers in violation of either rules on highly erodible land or wetlands, would have two years to a correct their conservation plan. The loss of premium subsidies wouldn't start until the farmer or landowner has exhausted all appeals.

Less than 5% of farms get spot checked now for compliance for farm programs.

"There's a mismatch between spot checking and immediate enforcement," Hoefner said.

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