Last week, I joined farmers and ranchers, the leaders of organizations that represent them, and members of Congress on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to charge the House of Representatives to move forward with a new farm bill. Together, we shared the message:
America needs a Farm Bill, and we need a Farm Bill now!
In a year when the rains stopped, the crops withered and the banker still calls, farmers and ranchers are the first to understand the value of conservation programs. The Farm Bill is where, every five years, American’s draw a compact to fight through drought, protect fragile farmland, restore our wetlands and keep our landscape healthy. It is where the nation comes together in the interest of a productive and sustainable farming industry. Agriculture is not a partisan issue. It’s not about politics; it’s about sound policy that benefits us all.
At the end of this month, the current Farm Bill expires. Most farm programs will not be immediately impacted. However, even if a short-term extension of the Farm Bill is passed through the calendar year, farmers would face too much uncertainty to effectively plan for the future. As House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson recently explained, the problem with the expiring Farm Bill is not October 1 or even in the three months of an extension, but instead lies in “the 91st day.”
Safeguarding a Thoughtful Conservation Approach
A version of the next farm bill was approved by the Senate earlier this year and a draft passed through the House agriculture committee. Both versions reflect financial constraints, guided by our nation’s long-term fiscal concerns. Despite the climate of federal budget belt-tightening, agricultural leaders in Congress have worked hard to put together thoughtful, logical and deliberate approaches to conservation programs.
In both bills, streamlined efforts propose a better structure to deliver conservation programs that are good for everyone – farmers will have a simpler process to enroll, conservationists will see more effective results, and taxpayers will see more efficient uses of resources. Among the proposed conservation programs are approaches to keep working lands in agricultural production, to protect farmland through long-term and permanent easements, and to achieve maximum resource conservation benefit through partnerships at the local level. Failure to finish the job and to finish it soon will risk losing all the good work, the carefully shaped compromise, and the improvements in effectiveness and efficiency in conservation programs that our leaders have wisely crafted.
Adding to the urgent need for action is our nation’s long-term fiscal concerns that beg for action, and the November election just around the corner that will further complicate the policy process. Whether implemented or not, the budget sequestration scheduled to go into effect next year means that more cuts are likely when a new Congress addresses the far-reaching impact of our nation’s debt problems. In sequestration, cuts are made across the board rather than strategically. Conservation programs in particular have already contributed more than $2 billion to the nation’s deficit reduction through appropriations cuts over the past several years. While we acknowledge that everyone may need to sacrifice, it is absolutely critical for the long term productivity of American agriculture that Congress hold the line on funding for conservation provided in the Senate bill and the House Agriculture Committee’s draft
Sustaining Valuable Momentum for Conservation Compliance
Much progress has already been made towards reattaching conservation compliance to crop insurance, a highly effective tool in protecting soil and wetlands by linking public support for farmers to public environmental benefits, in the next Farm Bill. The Senate bill included support for conservation compliance and the opportunity still exists to add an amendment with support in the House.
If a full reauthorization of the Farm Bill is not achieved before next year, we are at risk of effectively losing this progress at reattaching compliance to crop insurance. Since compliance was removed from crop insurance in 1996, crop insurance has emerged as the centerpiece of the farm safety net. As a consequence, farmers have greater incentive to farm fragile farmland that is not best suited for agricultural production — putting highly-erodible soil and wetlands in jeopardy. This must not happen. We believe compliance represents a covenant between farmers and society. It is reasonable for society to demand a basic level of stewardship to be applied in exchange for programs that help provide some measure of economic stability on the farm.
A Farm Bill Now: Good for Us All
Having lived on a farm in central Illinois all my life, I know that farmers take their role as stewards of the land seriously. When farmers and ranchers do our job right, we not only provide terrific bounty for people across the planet, we also assure a clean environment and a quality of life few nations have ever known. But we can’t do it alone. It’s a shared responsibility.
Many said we couldn’t have gotten this far. The budget is too tough. Our politics too partisan. The time too short. But agricultural leaders on Capitol Hill did it, and we are very grateful they did. Now, I challenge Congress to bring it home. Completing the farm bill this year is essential to continue the gains we’ve made to protect America’s farm and ranch land, and in keeping family farmers on the land. Good agricultural policy in a five-year Farm Bill will be good for consumers, good for farmers, good for the environment and good for our country.
If you wish to watch a recording of all the Farm Bill Now! Rally speakers to hear their messages, you can visit the Farm Bill Now! website.
About the Author: Jon Scholl is President of American Farmland Trust. Prior to AFT, he served as Counselor to the Administrator for Agriculture Policy at the