Gazette Editorial Board
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 doesn’t 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 don’t comply, payments could be withheld.
But that’s not the case with the federal crop insurance, which also is subsidized. And with direct subsidies going away, conservation could suffer. That’s because higher commodity prices are making conservation less attractive.
“Acres are coming out of the (Conservation Reserve Program) and going into row crop production because there’s more money to be made,” 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 Monday’s meeting: How about charging farmers more for their crop insurance if they don’t 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 that’s expected to increase in the new farm bill. Subsidies necessarily come with restrictions or requirements. That’s only fair, as long as the regulations are not unrealistic or overly cumbersome. Kintzle’s 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 operations’ negative effects on water quality and flooding — things that affect all of us in the long run.
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