Tie conservation to farm subsidies

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: December 2 2012 | 12:01 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 2:50 am in
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By Donna Winburn

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Because Iowa’s farmers face a tough global market, unpredictable weather and a long list of tough management decisions in pursuit of a strong harvest, running a family farm like mine takes hard work, responsibility and perseverance. Right now, like farmers across the country, I am waiting to see whether Congress will demonstrate these same traits by finishing a farm bill this year.

A new farm bill has been stalled in the U.S. House since July; the previous one expired in September. Debate in Congress so far suggests big changes in farm programs are coming, some of which are long overdue. But big questions remain unresolved, including an important issue about how the farm bill will protect clean water and prevent soil erosion in Iowa.

Right now, farmers like me who grow commodity crops (in Iowa, corn and soybeans) can receive federal direct payments, made every year whether farmers need them or not. This misguided program costs taxpayers about $5 billion per year, and fortunately, draft farm bills in Congress now call for ending it and using part of the savings to help farmers buy crop insurance instead.

But there’s a catch: Right now, to receive direct payments (and several other types of federal farm payments), farmers must follow something called conservation compliance. This policy requires farmers who want to farm highly erodible land to have a conservation plan to protect the soil, and it refuses federal subsidies for farmers who drain and farm wetlands.

Much of the land my family farms is considered highly erodible, and so we have a conservation plan to protect that land. For us, following this policy is just part of being responsible farmers.

Eliminating direct payments will significantly reduce the number of farmers expected to follow conservation compliance. In my area, I have seen how recent high prices for corn and soybeans are pushing some farmers to plant every inch of land they can. If direct payments end, and these farmers are no longer rewarded for following conservation compliance, some won’t. The result could be a big step backward for soil conservation and clean water in Iowa.

In June, the U.S. Senate recognized this problem and chose to attach conservation compliance protection to expanded crop insurance subsidies. This means as money shifts from direct payments to crop insurance, protection for Iowa’s soil and water will follow. But the U.S. House Agriculture Committee did not include this protection in its draft farm bill.

As a member and past board member of the Iowa Farmers Union, I see conservation compliance as a way farmers can demonstrate we take conservation seriously. I think most farmers agree; in fact, a poll this summer by the National Farmers Union showed about 61 of farmers in the Heartland think environmental standards should apply to crop insurance subsidies.

On my farm, we are in compliance today. Keeping our land healthy is a small piece of protecting America’s food supply; it provides Iowans cleaner water, and it ensures our farm will be a strong asset we can pass to our children.

Conservation compliance brings responsibility to federal farm spending, and it should be part of receiving crop insurance subsidies. Hopefully, when Congress renews its interest in responsibility, hard work, and perseverance on the farm bill, it will recognize that fact.

Donna Winburn is a past board member of the Iowa Farmers Union, a position she held for 22 years. She farms with her husband and two sons near Grinnell. Comments: donwin@iowatelecom.net. To view the National Farmers Union poll data on conservation compliance, visit http://smgs.us/3hww.

 

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