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Honor the Conservation Compact

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Some commitments should be honored.

In exchange for farm subsidies, farmers have for decades committed to adopt land management practices that reduce the runoff from their fields – a provision of the 1985 farm bill called “conservation compliance.”

This compact between farmers and taxpayers has been one of America’s greatest conservation success stories. Farmers managing more than 140 million acres of land implemented practices that reduced the amount of soil washed into streams from “highly erodible” lands by 40 percent.

Now, some farm leaders are trying to void the conservation compact even though polls show farmers overwhelmingly support conservation compliance. (Read Max Schnepf’s paper: Conservation Compliance: A Retrospective…and Look Ahead)

These “leaders” say that the conservation compact should not apply to farmers who receive federally subsidized crop and revenue insurance. After all, they argue, insurance policy holders were exempted from compliance when Congress expanded federal crop insurance subsidies in the 1990s.

But the rationale for this exemption – getting farmers to buy insurance so they would stop relying on federal disaster relief – no longer holds water at a time when almost all crop acres are insured and insurance programs have become the most expensive of all farm subsidies.

Breaking the conservation compact would pose significant new threats to public health and the environment, including drinking water supplies. Forty years after passage of the Clean Water Act, many of America’s rivers, lakes and bays remain polluted, and unregulated farm pollution is one of the worst culprits.

Instead of reversing their long-term commitment to conservation, farm leaders should use today’s (Feb. 28) Senate farm bill hearing to urge Congress to require conservation compliance as a condition of receiving federally subsidized insurance. They should also support steps to update conservation plans, require more oversight and set new conservation standards for especially sensitive lands near rivers and lakes.

“Compliance is not nearly as onerous as many once thought, given the ‘economic hardship’ and ‘good faith’ provisions written into more recent farm bills, along with graduated penalties and the year’s grace period offered to farmers found to be out of compliance,” Schnepf told Politico’s David Rogers.

As EWG recently documented in its Losing Ground report in 2011, efforts to reduce farmland runoff have faltered as powerful incentives have encouraged farmers to put sensitive lands under the plow. Now, more than ever, is the time to renew our commitment to conservation.

Fortunately, most farmers want to honor their commitment. The 2010 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll showed that two-thirds of Iowa farmers said they should be required to conserve soil on highly erodible cropland regardless of whether they participate in federal farm programs. What’s more, 70 percent said they support requiring control of the pollutants in farm runoff as a condition of eligibility for federal farm programs.