Uncertainty over conservation programs in the farm billby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Most of the farm bill is now law after Congress voted to override a presidential veto. One provision, dealing with trade, is still in limbo because of a clerical error.
The new farm bill adds nearly $8 billion to conservation programs. Much of the new funding is aimed at encouraging conservation on existing farmland. Some groups say there's not enough emphasis on protecting wildlife habitat.
Moorhead, Minn. — The farm bill is really just a concept that lawmakers envision as policy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will write rules that make the policy into programs.
But the framework for conservation programs is not as strong as Ducks Unlimited regional biologist for farm programs, Scott McLeod, anticipated.
He says millions of acres of Conservation Reserve Program land will go back into crop production over the next five years; meaning fewer ducks will be produced in Minnesota and the Dakotas.
McLeod says he was hopeful the farm bill would help preserve some important duck habitat, the native prairie in the Dakotas.
"The conservation title is a little bit of a mixed bag. Some things we're pretty disappointed with, particularly the Sodsaver provision that was going to help protect native prairie that's being lost," says McLeod.
In recent years, farmers have been plowing the native prairie even though it's often marginal land. McLeod says even if the land didn't produce a crop, farmers knew they would get a federal farm payment.
The new Sodsaver program was designed to stop that practice by denying farm payments to those who plow native prairie.
But in the end, the provision was made voluntary and will be enacted only if approved by a state's governor.
McLeod says a voluntary Sodsaver program combined with a new permanent disaster program may encourage more destruction of important duck habitat. "Now that that (Sodsaver) has been fairly watered down and we've got a $3.8 billion permanent disaster program, we anticipate we're going to see the conversion of native prairie escalate," says McLeod.
Some farm groups have a different perspective. North Dakota Farm Bureau public policy director Brian Kramer is happy the Sodsaver program will be voluntary. He says the program may be well intentioned, but it would be another level of federal regulation.
"The concern we have is that that gets expanded," says Kramer. "We've seen regulatory creep happen in wetland programs and some of those things, where it becomes more mandatory and we hope that is not the case with the Sodsaver provisions."
Kramer says a farm bill conservation provision he supports is new funding for conservation on existing farmland which could benefit farmers and the environment.
The idea of the Conservation Security Program (CSP) is to draw in farmers who haven't participated before. But he says the devil is in the details, and he's waiting to see how the USDA writes the rules that will govern the program.
CSP pays farmers for measures that are environmentally beneficial, such as minimum tillage which leaves more soil in place, or buffer strips of grass along streams to improve water quality. Farmers could also be paid to delay cutting hay so birds could finish nesting.
Land Stewardship member Bill Gorman farms near Goodhue, Minn.
He says more funding for conservation on working farms means more acres protected from erosion and less pollution entering rivers and streams.
"We get some incentives for doing good conservation work on working farmland and I think going forward that's going to be huge," says Gorman. "Any kind of conservation on the land, be it no till or minimum till, keeps soil where it's supposed to be and water clean. And that's going to be more and more of a conversation among non farmers I think."
While the farm bill is now law, the lobbying will continue. Conservation and agricultural interests will be trying to influence the rules USDA writes this summer to turn congressional policy into programs.
- Morning Edition, 05/29/2008, 7:55 a.m.