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The Farm Bureau Bogeyman

Friday, January 27, 2012

This op-ed appeared in the Des Moines Register on January 27, 2012.

When the farm bill fight gets rolling again in Congress, one question will be at the heart of the debate: Is it fair to ask farmers to take a few basic steps to protect soil and clean up waterways in return for the billions of dollars that taxpayers spend each year to provide them with cut-rate crop insurance?

Congress has long attached conservation requirements to farm subsidy programs, including to crop insurance in 1985. In 1996, however, lawmakers cut that string. The big fight now is whether to restore that modest obligation to a federal program that in its latest form actually insures farmers’ business income — not crop yield — at a cost of more than $8 billion a year.

The American Farm Bureau Federation’s answer is apparently a resounding no.

Fresh off his trip to sunny Honolulu for the federation’s annual conference, Craig Hill, the new head of the Farm Bureau’s Iowa chapter, made his position clear on Jan. 11 to The Des Moines Register.

“Because of torrential weather events like we’ve seen in recent years, we also know that linkage of conservation to crop insurance simply risks too much at a time when the stakes have never been higher for farmers,” Hill said. “There are already 15 farm programs that link to the conservation title in the farm bill, so to deny crop insurance to farmers because of weather events beyond their control could put a farmer out of business in a single year’s event.”

That statement just doesn’t stand up.

More than half of the 15 farm programs with conservation requirements actually pay farmers to implement conservation practices. More to the point, now that the Farm Bureau is at long last agreeing to get rid of the most important farm program currently linked to conservation — direct payments — it wants to replace it with even more generous programs to insure farm business income and with no conservation requirements at all.

Could linking heavily subsidized “crop” insurance to conservation really put a farmer out of business because of a torrential weather event? Hardly. Congress has bent over backwards to make sure that the Department of Agriculture has all the flexibility it needs to avoid penalizing farmers because of weather or other events beyond their control. USDA imposes no penalties or loss of benefits if, for example:

  • Severe weather or pest or disease outbreaks prevent a farmer from implementing required conservation practices.
  • A natural disaster destroys farm equipment or farm holdings and causes extreme personal hardship.
  • A farmer acts in good faith and does not deliberately refuse to implement required conservation practices.

In the event of a disaster, what USDA actually does is to work directly with the producer to get conservation practices back on the ground. That’s a far cry from putting a farmer “out of business.”

Maybe Craig Hill is simply unaware of how the link between farm programs and conservation has worked ever since 1985. Or maybe he is trotting out the same scare tactics that the Farm Bureau is fond of whenever conservation and environmental issues come up. Remember the “cow tax” that was going to be imposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Or the nonexistent federal regulation on dust from farm operations? Both were bogeymen, and so is the claim that attaching a few conservation strings to billions in insurance subsidies will put farmers out of business.

According to the Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll, 81 percent of Iowa farmers agree that farmers should be required to control soil erosion on highly erodible land to stay eligible for federal farm program benefits. Two-thirds think farmers should control soil erosion whether or not they get benefits.

Farmers need a safety net, but so do our land and water. The new farm bill must reinvigorate the conservation compact made between farmers and taxpayers in 1985 to ensure that the soil remains productive and the water stays clean in the face of the torrential weather events that rightly worry Mr. Hill.