Nebraska ranchers, Iowa farmers and the nation's agribusiness companies — from grocery kingpin Walmart to meat titan Tyson Foods — are stewing about Congress' failure to pass a farm bill before the lame-duck session.
They aren't alone. Hunters and conservationists also are turning up the heat.
The farm bill contains provisions that help to conserve soil, keep water clean and benefit wildlife populations. But some of those provisions are in jeopardy, raising concerns that millions of acres of grasslands and wetlands could be put at risk.
About 30 years ago, in return for taxpayer-supported commodity payments, farmers agreed to farm the most productive lands and try to minimize adverse effects on marginal ground and to not drain wetlands. The program slowed the pace of wetland draining and promoted sustainable land use.
“It's been a good contract between taxpayers and farmers,'' said Eric Lindstrom, a former Ducks Unlimited biologist in Iowa who now is the organization's farm bill representative in Bismarck, N.D.
Now, under the House and Senate versions of the current farm bill, commodity payments would be eliminated and crop insurance would be bolstered. Spending for voluntary conservation programs would be cut by more than $6 billion over 10 years.
There is concern that the new farm bill could put at risk 7 million to 14 million acres of highly erodible land and 1.5 million to 3.3 million acres of wetlands that are not currently farmed, according to Ducks Unlimited. Nearly 1.4 million wetlands could be drained in the eastern Dakotas. Such widespread habitat loss would reduce the landscape's breeding capacity by 37 percent.
Conservation organizations ranging from state game agencies to Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever are asking Congress to require growers to implement basic soil and water protections as a condition of receiving federal crop insurance subsidies.
“It's better to conserve what you have than try to bring back what you lost,” said Eric Zach, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's agricultural program manager in Lincoln. “It's more expensive to fix it than conserve it.”
Zach said Game and Parks works closely with landowners because about 97 percent of Nebraska is privately owned land.
“They're who raises most of our wildlife,'' he said.
Jordan Dux, national affairs coordinator for the Nebraska Farm Bureau, said the organization has argued against linking conservation compliance and crop insurance because most farmers recognize the need to care for their land if they hope to make a profit.
Loss of insurance coverage for not complying with conservation programs could break a farming operation, he said.
“The federal crop insurance program is such a large part of the farm bill, and also the business plan of farmers, that we don't think connecting these two is a good idea,'' Dux said.
More than 264 million acres of U.S. farmland was insured by federal crop insurance last year. On average, taxpayers provide about 62 percent of crop insurance premium support to farmers, although subsidies can range as high as 80 percent.
Unlike the House version, the Senate version of the farm bill does include a provision requiring growers who accept crop insurance subsidies to take steps to protect wetlands and grasslands. The conservation section of the farm bill is not holding up passage. The hang-up is in the House, where members can't agree on how much money to budget for the food stamp program.
Bob Bettger, a landowner and retired farmer from Fairmont, Neb., said he supported linking insurance and conservation because taxpayers are subsidizing farmers' insurance premiums.
“Farmers and landowners at least need to make sure that while they are producing crops and responsibly feeding the world that they are addressing the natural resources,'' he said.
Bettger said he is concerned about landowners plowing up grassland, whether it's native prairie or marginal cropland idled under the Conservation Reserve Program. He acknowledged that it's easy for farmers with big equipment to farm waterways and wetlands.
Zach, the Game and Parks agricultural program manager, said the impact goes beyond farming. It affects urban Nebraskans.
“It's a quality of life issue,'' he said. “Streams and reservoirs could be impaired. The source of much of Lincoln and Omaha's water is Nebraska cropland. It's not just soil that runs off those lands. It's nitrates and chemicals. Keeping those where they're meant to be is important.''
Ducks Unlimited and other organizations have used conservation programs to work with landowners to restore and conserve millions of acres of vital wildlife habitat for decades. Habitat organizations say they want the farm bill to maintain and strengthen wetlands protections, including a national sodsaver provision to protect native prairie and preserve conservation programs.
The programs also benefit the nation's economy. People spent $145 billion on wildlife-based recreation — which includes everything from backyard bird watching to hunting — in 2011, according to a preliminary U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report.
The availability of millions of acres of marginal land protected from crop production by the Conservation Reserve Program came in handy after drought parched the plains this year, said Gary Taylor, Ducks Unlimited's director of government affairs in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Agriculture Department allowed farmers who needed feed for cattle to graze livestock on grasslands idled from crop production. Land in the conservation reserve is valuable wildlife habitat, especially for upland game birds.
“Conservation Reserve land provided a vital feed buffer for cattle,'' Taylor said.
Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever's Minnesota-based vice president for government affairs, said conservation compliance is not a cumbersome burden for farmers.
“But it would help us with people driven by high land values and booming commodity prices who are wondering what to do with their land,'' he said.
Nomsen said yearlong drought hovering over the central United States is a reminder of the wisdom of linking crop insurance with conservation programs.
Lindstrom, of Ducks Unlimited, said Congress may try to advance a farm bill during the lame-duck session, which started Tuesday. but fiscal issues may delay it until next year.
Wildlife organizations have long supported a federal safety net for farmers, particularly if it's linked to conservation programs.
“This isn't uncharted territory,'' Lindstrom said. “It's worked well for 30 years. There would be no increased regulations. We'd just maintain the status quo. We're asking for that to continue.''
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