Every five years, Congress establishes the nation’s agriculture policy with a new farm bill. This legislation has far-reaching effects for farmers and non-farmers alike. In Iowa, where 30.7 million acres are farmed, conservation portions of the bill play a major role in controlling soil erosion and supporting clean water.
Progress on the new bill has stalled, but it is clear major changes to farm policy are on the horizon. One of the most significant changes is the elimination of the widely criticized direct payment program that pays about $5 billion each year in subsidies to farmers who may or may not need the support. Congress is discussing putting the savings toward subsidized crop insurance and deficit reduction.
However, eliminating direct payments will bring harmful side effects for Iowa’s soil and water. Currently, in exchange for these payments and other public subsidies, farmers agree to follow a conservation plan for farming highly erodible land and to not further drain wetlands on their farms.
This agreement is called “conservation compliance.” It is especially important now because high prices for corn and soybeans are a strong motivation for farmers to plant as much land — even land not previously farmed — as possible. If direct payments end, and Congress takes no other action, the incentive for farmers to follow conservation compliance will weaken substantially.
Fortunately, a solution exists to soften this blow. As Congress expands the subsidized crop insurance program, lawmakers should also connect conservation expectations to subsidies for crop insurance. The full Senate added this common sense requirement to its version of the farm bill, but the House Agriculture Committee did not, and the full U.S. House has yet to act.
Making this conservation connection is critical. Recent analysis of Iowa State University data by the Environmental Working Group has shown large areas of several western Iowa counties suffered soil erosion at a rate exceeding 100 tons/acre from 2002-2010; in one year, an average acre in Iowa loses 5.2 tons of soil to erosion. At the same time, soaring prices of farmland in northwest Iowa continue to draw attention around the state. High land prices are one way of expressing the value of Iowa’s precious agricultural soil, which conservation compliance helps protect.
Farmers support conservation compliance. In return for receiving direct payments and other subsidies, many are already following compliance now. And farmers support connecting conservation compliance to crop insurance subsidies. A poll this summer by the National Farmers Union found that 61 percent of farmers in the U.S. Heartland thought they should meet environmental standards to receive crop insurance.
Further, enforcement of conservation compliance is clear and fair. Farmers who fall out of compliance because of severe weather or events beyond their control can receive waivers or variances that allow them to return to compliance without consequences. The policy protects against undue economic harm to producers, and it respects those who are making good-faith efforts to comply.
Connecting conservation compliance to crop insurance would only apply to the taxpayers' share of paying crop insurance premiums; it would not prevent farmers from buying insurance without taxpayer support.
Many farmers take their stewardship responsibility for the land seriously. Those who practice good conservation (and all Iowans who appreciate clean water) are at a disadvantage when poor stewards who cut corners still receive the same benefits.
Farmers have shown they are willing to support conservation standards in exchange for taxpayer support. Hopefully, lawmakers will step forward to continue this important connection.
Ralph Rosenberg is executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council. Learn more about the council at www.iaenvironment.org.