Conservation in the Farm Bill

Late Friday night, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, released a revised version of the 2007 Farm Bill. It will go to the full committee for mark up (further revision) and voting July 17th-19th. Below, some highlights from five programs included in the Farm Bill's Conservation Title.

Conservation Reserve Program: The USDA currently lists 36.8 million acres of farmland as enrolled in CRP contracts and currently being held in wildlife habitat, wetlands, or tree cover. The new mark would expand the program to allow another 2.4 million acres to be enrolled, for a total of 39.2 million acres. Retiring farmers with land enrolled in CRP are encouraged to transfer their land to beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers or ranchers, or to a low-income farmer or rancher intending to practice sustainable grazing or cropping practices. That's really among the best news.

Conservation Security Program: A notable Farm Bill program getting the cold shoulder is the Conservation Security Program, which rewards conservation practices on working farm lands. The Committee fact sheet on the program lists the oft-repeated and valid complaint about this very popular (among its limited recipients) program that the "USDA has not implemented the program nationwide, as the original law required and has restricted CSP participation by limiting program enrollment each year to producers in specified, priority watersheds. This has been controversial and has prevented many eligible farmers from accessing the program."

Peterson's new version addresses this flaw by allocating no new funding for the program until 2012, when Congress is expected to pass a new Farm Bill. Existing contracts could be funded, though the appropriations process has not always fully funded the honoring of these contracts, but no new signups would be allowed until that time.

Other unpleasant changes have been made to the structure of the CSP program, including reducing the maximum contract length from 10 years to 5, and not requiring enrolled land to meet more than one resource concern. Though the most onerous change is that any producer entering the CSP program must enroll all the land under their control, with land already enrolled in the Conservation or Wetlands Reserve Programs ineligible for participation. This would forbid growers from putting part of their land in reserve and also being compensated for good stewardship practices on the rest of their land. Which would be of far more pressing concern if the program weren't slated to be defunded until 2012.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) created CSP in 2002, and has called for full funding for new signups in 2007. The conference committee fight to resolve these two visions of CSP seems likely to be particularly bruising.

The complaint commonly launched against CSP is that farmers shouldn't be subsidized for something they were going to do anyway. It's too bad the Agriculture Committee never says that about growing corn. But farming is about your yield per acre, and it should seem obvious that using every available inch of an arable acre is going to earn a farmer more money in the short term than allowing some of that acre to be used as wildlife habitat or a native plant buffer. In the long term, better conservation practices preserve the soil quality and viability of farmland.

Which is always a great comfort to a farmer who's gone out of business and had to sell or rent their land to someone who will squeeze every last dollar out of every acre.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program: This is one of the programs benefitting from the gutting of CSP, and has been used to subsidize large manure lagoons at confined hog-feeding operations that shack up hundreds of thousands of hogs. This version mandates the USDA to "ensure that the evaluation process is as streamlined and efficient as practicable in the case of applications [for program enrollment] that ... seek a single practice ... to further improve the environmental performance of that system."

In other words, the USDA has been told that, as best they can, they should speed through applications for animal concentration camps that produce more manure than cities with three times as many people to, as their sole 'conservation' practice, put that manure in enormous, earthen pits.

Though Rep. Peterson had declared himself a fan of various payment caps earlier this year, the limit on EQIP payments has been left at $450,000 per year. I have this inexplicable, vague, nagging sensation, telling me that something better could be done with nearly a half million dollars than subsidizing hog manure lagoons for fabulously wealthy agribusiness concerns.

Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program: This program is intended to purchase conservation easements on agricultural land sought for development construction.

That sounds quite useful, except that "the eligible entity shall be authorized to use its own terms and conditions for conservation easements and other purchases of interests in land, so long as ... the entity has in place a requirement consistent with agricultural activities regarding the impervious surfaces to be allowed ..." In other words, so long as you have your own declared set of rules, you can pave over part of the protected land anyway. And hey, greenhouses are consistent with agricultural activity. Maybe someone will argue that the addition of a parking lot on which greenhouses could be placed, or a building whose roof could support a hydroponic garden, is consistent with agricultural activities.

State Technical Committees: These are established to advise the administrating agency on how to implement conservation laws and provide technical advice. As the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition notes ...

... The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is omitted from the list of professional resource managers who are currently eligible to serve on STCs. The current STC legislation provides for the inclusion of "agricultural producers with demonstrable conservation expertise." The mark would change this to "at least 12 agricultural producers representing the variety of crops and livestock or poultry grown within the State" and also adds agribusiness representatives as a new membership category.  In addition, in what we hope is a typo but fear might be intentional, non-profit organizations are limited to IRS Section 501(c)(2) organizations, which are asset holding subsidiaries of IRS Section 501(c)(3) organizations. These subsidiaries are often established for non-profits to protect real estate holdings from liability. ...

This means that the majority of nonprofit organizations not set up as real estate shields would be excluded from participating in conservation implementation decisions. Most grassroots organizations, many of them employing highly qualified conservationists and subject matter experts would have their advice excluded from the committee.

Also, while representatives from state Fish and Wildlife services would be eligible to serve on these committees, representatives of the federal agency are excluded. It's not a difficult thought exercise to understand that a federal agency employee is likely to have a more impartial perspective on decisions that might mean a lot of money to large state and local business interests.

The More Things Change: I used to frequently complain about the Beltway perspective that the parties were pretty much the same. I still believe that's a valid critique, but I look at some of these decisions and ask myself if they can be excused by the fact that Sen. Barbara Boxer invited Al Gore to testify about global warming before her Senate committee.

As I noted in my previous post, agricultural uses occupy around 52 percent of U.S. land and pose serious conservation and carbon emissions issues. Conservation plans that don't take the structure of agriculture in the U.S. into account won't provide a path towards long term sustainability. Yet here, in the one piece of legislation designed to address precisely this area, House Democrats are falling down on the job.

The Democrats can't be expected to be taken seriously as champions of conservation if they continue to allow polluting land use policies and the worst polluters to be supported in blatant greenwashing. There are some small, often poorly funded, bright spots in this section of the bill. I can tell you that each one of them has been a tooth and nail fight, while good programs have been crippled in order to preserve legislative pork for the environmentally destructive mass production of actual pork.

It's true that a party's election year style can be cramped by 'they're all the same' press narratives. It would be nice if there weren't so many little issues that didn't reinforce the story.

Tags: Agriculture, conservation, Environment, farm bill (all tags)

Comments

4 Comments

Great stuff!

The CRS produces good stuff - like this previewing the farm bill.

But your stuff is just what the doctor ordered as pointing up and fleshing out areas of concern, but tailored for a lay audience that is aiming for an understanding of the legislative issues, rather than making a career change.

Now, be it said, Peterson is miles ahead of the pack when it comes to online infomation on the markup process - a real Mr Open House. We've got the chairman's mark ten days before the full committee markup - where other committees give us zip.

Whether that's a genuine interest in participation or an arrogance that he's going to get his way without the weapon of surprise, I don't know!

However - it sounds like good news that Peterson is proposing to deep=freeze CSP, if it's Harkin's baby. His argument that, since USDA hasn't used the program fully, it might as well be cut, deserves a place in the Bureaucratic Sophistry Hall of Fame.

What is Harkin's revenge going to be, I wonder?

The other stuff seems full of devilish detail - the kind which escapes the uninitiated while thumbing hopefully through the paperwork.

(One point is that, great though Peterson's benificence has been, info-wise, he hasn't supplied us with Ramseyer Rule-like texts of the effect of his chairman's mark on the US Code provisions which are being amended.

Which, given that pretty much all of the farm bill amends existing legislation in ways often incomprehensible without reference to the target provisions, is something of a bummer.)

I liked the piece you linked about the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems meeting: without wanting to be patronising (Too late. Ed.), the articulacy and persuasiveness of the folks you quote there really brings home the problems they're facing.

And the cutting of a measly $2.5m for ATTRA would seem to me like pure spite. Hardly enough to keep the DOD in paperclips.  

Surely the Dems can realistically do better? We're not talking huge sums, they don't have to face a weak on agriculture bogey - and it seems just the sort of thing where the Western populist, Schweitzer-type model of politics might be rolled out to good effect. Not to mention the coastal liberal consumer good, healthy food angle.

My guess is that there is an unassailable majority in both houses for the status quo, and, if the leaderships were in a mood to be bold (which they seldom are!), they'd say that there was no percentage in being bold about the farm bill.

But - that absolutely does not mean we should head for the beach and leave them to it with the farm bill! We're getting extended on-the-job training in legislative process from Uncle Sam free of charge, so that, the next time, we'll be a bit better prepared.

And - who knows? Perhaps events may get out of control. Perhaps a Peterson-Harkin range war will break out. Wouldn't want to miss that!

by skeptic06 2007-07-08 07:05AM | 0 recs
Found a cool organization...

Isaac Walton League of America

It's a conservation group with a great deal of focus on Agriculture.

Apparently a lot of pro-gun, non-liberal folk get involved, even though they're tree-huggers (and they believe that cleaner engines mean cleaner air and water; how odd.)

They blog, and they're holding their annual conference in Montana.

by msnook 2007-07-08 12:50PM | 0 recs
oh, I forgot to mention the point

They have a thoughtful take on the farm bill. I don't know if they're right, but it seems thoughtful. And if they're talking good policy we should keep them in mind. They'd be good allies to have.

by msnook 2007-07-08 12:57PM | 0 recs
Re: Conservation in the Farm Bill

Thanks, Natasha, for tearing a hunk off of this complicated, indigestible lump of legislation we call the farm bill and presenting it to us in a coherent and clear-eyed fashion. Sadly, when it comes to our agricultural policies, region too often trumps party.

We've got to build a rural-urban coalition to counter the influence of all the agribiz fatcats who line the pockets of politicians on both sides. It's scary to see how many dems are boarding the corn-based ethanol bandwagon. Here's hoping we can round up our fellow progressives and head the corno-crats off at the pass before they drive us right over the climate-change cliff...we need an ag policy that funds real alternatives to fossil fuels, and promotes sustainable farming, and we're not going to get it without a fight. Glad you're following this stuff so closely on our behalf.

by Kerry Trueman 2007-07-08 07:13PM | 0 recs

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