Troy Schroeder: New farm bill should protect sensitive lands

04/20/2012 12:00 AM

04/20/2012 7:00 AM

Kansas boasts some of the best hunting and fishing grounds in the country and a proud tradition of balancing wildlife habitat with agriculture. On my family farm, we have always worked hard to support that tradition, ensuring that our farming operation is compatible with the protection of clean water, healthy soil and wildlife habitat.

My son and I operate a 1,500-acre crop production farm in central Kansas. Over the past 10 years, we have used several U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs to improve our farm for crop production and wildlife habitat.

Kansas has 2.5 million acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which compensates farmers for planting highly erodible land with permanent vegetation like native grasses for a number of years.

Nationwide, CRP prevents the erosion of 325 million tons of soil each year, enough soil to fill 19.5 million dump trucks, and keeps more than 600 million pounds of nitrogen and more than 100 million pounds of phosphorous from flowing into our nation’s streams, rivers and lakes.

The farm bill is up for renewal this year, and I’m very concerned about it for a couple of reasons. The first is that lawmakers are asking everyone – including agriculture – to absorb deep cuts to long-standing programs. The second is that corn and soybean prices are at historic levels, and the pressure is enormous to take land out of conservation and put it into production.

With the expected cuts to conservation programs such as the CRP, it’s essential that lawmakers ensure we have eligibility requirements – something known as “compliance” – for farmers to qualify for government subsidies, especially crop insurance. It is only fair to expect that voluntarily accepting taxpayer money comes with a responsibility to ensure the public’s interests are protected by meeting basic protections for soil, water and wildlife habitat.

Crop insurance, today’s biggest farm subsidy, has not contained a compliance provision since the 1996 farm bill. The connection was severed in order to get more farmers to participate in the (then much smaller) insurance program.

But times have changed. Fewer than 100 million acres of farmland were insured under the program in 1994. Today more than 260 million acres are covered, a participation rate of more than 80 percent for the major crops.

A 2006 USDA study found that increases in crop insurance subsidies motivated producers to convert an estimated 2.5 million acres of pristine habitat into row crop production. An additional 7 million to 14 million acres of highly erodible land and 1.5 million to 3.3 million acres of wetlands may end up in production if compliance requirements for crop insurance aren’t restored.

These sensitive lands provide marginal production, but often at considerable risk to farmers and with negative impacts to water quality and wildlife habitat. In light of this damaging trend, it is imperative the new farm bill also include the “sodsaver” provision, which allows landowners to break out sensitive native land for crop production, but only at their own expense. Taxpayer dollars won’t be used to subsidize such risky practices.

Including a sodsaver provision in the next farm bill would protect sensitive lands and save taxpayer dollars from unnecessary expense, while allowing farmers the flexibility to farm these lands at their own expense if they choose.

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