Crop insurance and conservation

March 31, 2014 | 8:22 pm

Gazette Editorial Board

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By all reports, changes are coming to farm safety-net legislation Congress finally approves as part of the new five-year Food, Farm and Jobs Bill, which is supposed to replace the one scheduled to expire in September. One change expected is the end of direct subsidy payments to farmers, with more reliance on crop insurance.

While that approach makes more sense than paying farmers directly not to grow crops, the insurance component as it stands doesnít do much to encourage conservation practices and may put more marginal cropland at risk. That potential shortcoming needs to be addressed.

Direct subsidy payments and eligibility for other U.S. Department of Agriculture programs have been tied to compliance with conservation plans. If farmers donít comply, payments could be withheld.

But thatís not the case with the federal crop insurance, which also is subsidized. And with direct subsidies going away, conservation could suffer. Thatís because higher commodity prices are making conservation less attractive.

ďAcres are coming out of the (Conservation Reserve Program) and going into row crop production because thereís more money to be made,Ē Jeff Klinge, a corn and beef farmer from Clayton County, told U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during a farm bill listening post Monday in Cedar Rapids.

Crop insurance guarantees farmers an income, he said, and can be an incentive to expand their operations at the expense of conservation.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, favors linking conservation requirements to crop insurance.

Another suggestion came from Jack Kintzle, Coggon farmer and former president of the National Corn Growers Association, during Mondayís meeting: How about charging farmers more for their crop insurance if they donít implement conservation practices?

The latter option strikes us as the fairer and more effective one.

First of all, U.S. taxpayers already cover an average of 62 percent of the cost of the crop insurance, and thatís expected to increase in the new farm bill. Subsidies necessarily come with restrictions or requirements. Thatís only fair, as long as the regulations are not unrealistic or overly cumbersome. Kintzleís idea also allows farmers some choice.

And depending on how the crop insurance pricing is structured, farmers could see additional incentive to keep improving how they care for the land and reduce their operationsí negative effects on water quality and flooding ó things that affect all of us in the long run.

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