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Hail to the Chiefs

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Six former chiefs of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service today (May 7) urged the leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees to once again require farmers to adopt basic conservation practices in exchange for crop insurance subsidies.

In the farm bill discussions last year and this, committee leaders have declined to restore the link between crop insurance subsidies and “conservation compliance.” But pressure is building to require farmers to reduce soil erosion and protect wetlands if they want to continue to collect unlimited crop insurance subsidies.

Over the four years from 2008 to 2011, the combination of high crop prices, unlimited subsidies and ethanol mandates led farmers to plow under more than 23 million acres of prairie and wetlands – an area the size of Indiana.

The former agency heads wrote:

High prices driven by strong demand for our commodities are boosting farm income but putting enormous pressure on our land and water resources. Maintaining the current conservation compliance provisions, which are both effective and achievable, is essential to our efforts to maintain the conservation gains of recent decades.

Subsidized farmers who grow annually tilled crops on highly erodible lands have been subject to conservation compliance since 1985, when Congress first established this compact between farmers and taxpayers. As a result, millions of acres of wetlands were saved and soil erosion was dramatically reduced.

As the NRCS chiefs said:

America’s farmers produce far more than food and fiber — they also produce cleaner water, cleaner air, open spaces and abundant habitat for wildlife and recreation. When conservation compliance was enacted as a part of the 1985 Farm Bill, it sparked a decade of unprecedented progress in limiting erosion, cleaning up waterways, and protecting wetlands.

But Congress severed the link between compliance and crop insurance in 1996 to encourage more farmers to buy insurance.

Now that insurance has become the primary means of government income support for farmers, the chiefs contend it’s time to restore the link. 

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