Senate Listens to Public & Makes Crop Insurance More Accountable to the Environment

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The  U.S. Senate passed its version of the 2012 Farm Bill this week. While it’s far from perfect, specific amendments related to conservation and accountability  that were passed during the floor vote give one hope that the voices of average citizens can be heard inside the Beltway. Let’s hope this is a sign of things to come as the U.S. House takes up its version of the legislation.

Things weren’t looking so good at the beginning of the week, with the Senate set to approve a bill that would make the federal crop insurance program an even bigger boondoggle than it already is— a boondoggle that doesn’t even require farmers to implement the most basic of conservation measures in order to qualify for insurance payments. But to the chagrin of the insurance, agribusiness and commodity group lobby, crop insurance has been receiving a lot of attention in the media this spring, thanks in large part to groups like the Land Stewardship Project, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Environmental Working Group.

A lot of this media attention has it roots in the willingness of crop farmers like Darwyn Bach to speak out on the issue. As Bach and others make clear, crop insurance should serve as a basic safety net for farmers, not a high-powered tool for cropping environmentally-sensitive acres and pricing family farmers out of the land market. During the past few days, farmers and other citizens concerned about conservation and accountability in the farm bill flooded Senate offices with phone calls.

Here in Minnesota, those calls paid off big time: Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken voted for key amendments during the debate on this bill. In fact, Franken co-authored an amendment that some have described as the “shocker” of the whole Farm Bill debate thus far. The amendment, authored by Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), requires farmers to implement basic conservation practices in order to participate in the crop insurance program. Even though “conservation compliance” is a mainstay of other federal farm programs, making it a part of crop insurance was bitterly resisted by the leaders of commodity groups like the National Corn Growers Association. In fact, soon after the Senate bill was passed, the NCGA took one more shot at conservation compliance, saying in an official statement that it was “very disappointed” this requirement was attached to crop insurance.

“I just don’t get the resistance to conservation compliance,” Bach told me earlier this spring, echoing what a lot of crop farmers were thinking and making it clear once again that commodity organization leaders often misrepresent what rank-and-file farmers believe.

That resistance is why all those calls this week were so key—the conservation compliance amendment narrowly passed 52 to 47. Given the tremendous amount of erosion and reports of wetland loss we’ve seen this spring, the timing couldn’t be better. Of course, enforcement of conservation compliance is a whole other issue, but we’ll take one step at a time here.

It’s worth mentioning that the Senate cast another vote in favor of conservation when it defeated a horrific amendment that would have abolished the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Conservation Reserve Program.

Another Senate Farm Bill amendment begins to set some much-needed limits on crop insurance subsidy dollars by establishing adjusted gross income restrictions. Passed 66 to 33, the vote demonstrates growing grassroots momentum in support of greater accountability for federally subsidized crop insurance. In the Senate Farm Bill, no longer will those who make more than $750,000 receive the same subsidy rates as moderate-sized family farmers. Because of the heavy lobbying efforts of crop insurance companies, commodity groups and the banking sector, there have been virtually no requirements or income limits on federal crop insurance since the 1980s, but that dynamic is changing.

“This amendment is a much-needed change and will only affect a few farm enterprises and save over a billion dollars,” says Bach. “It makes sense to apply the same limits to crop insurance subsidies as we have in virtually all other farm programs. People who are making three-quarters of a million dollars a year don’t need the same public support levels as rank-and-file farmers.”

It’s also encouraging that an amendment related to beginning farmer support also made it into the final Senate version of the Farm Bill. A major focus of the Land Stewardship Project prior to and during the floor debate was increasing resources for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, a federal initiative which supports community organizations and networks that provide beginning farmer training and assistance.

The Senate Farm Bill now includes $85 million over five years for BFRDP. This is an increase of $10 million compared to the 2008 Farm Bill. This increased funding is a recognition of how effective BFRDP has been at launching successful farming operations in recent years. It’s also yet another sign that people who support this program—beginning farmers, community leaders, rural development experts, etc.—are being heard in D.C. Again, Minnesota’s two Senators supported this increased funding after hearing from their constituents in recent days.

With passage of the Senate Farm Bill, attention turns to the U.S. House, which is expected to begin Agriculture Committee debate of a proposal in early July. That means farmers and anyone else concerned about conservation and accountability should keep those Capitol phone numbers handy.

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