Ag secretary seeks conservation commitment from lawmakers

2013-05-07T00:00:00Z 2013-05-08T22:35:04Z Ag secretary seeks conservation commitment from lawmakersBy TOM LUTEY The Billings Gazette

Farmers will have to toe the line on conservation practices or go without taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance under a plan backed by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Vilsack told The Billings Gazette on Monday that the Department of Agriculture will put its weight behind several changes to keep federal conservation efforts viable as Congress eyes cuts to the 2013 farm bill. Lawmakers are expected to begin marking up the five-year farm bill in a few days.

“There’s an opportunity to get a strong commitment for conservation,” Vilsack said. “We lose about 1.5 billion tons of quality topsoil every year. That is not replaced. In the long haul, it also impacts the quality of our water.”

Wildlife groups consider the farm bill’s conservation title crucial to protecting habitat for everything from ducks to deer. The title is the federal government’s largest tool for conserving wildlife habitat on private land, especially in Montana where farmers received $2 billion in conservation payments from 1995 to 2011, the fifth-largest amount nationally according to the Environmental Working Group.

The idea of denying crop insurance subsidies to farmers who don’t practice conservation stems from the proposed elimination of direct government payments to farmers. Many grain and cotton farmers have for years received direct annual payments from the federal government regardless of whether they planted anything. Farmers, however, must agree to certain conservation practices to receive payment, which totaled roughly $5 billion annually.

With direct payment gone, the USDA needs a new program, broad enough to reach most farmers, which can encourage conservation compliance. The federally subsidized crop insurance appears to be the program. The federal government picks up roughly 60 percent of a farm’s crop insurance costs.

“The vast majority of farmers and ranchers are already compliant,” said Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever vice president of government affairs.

Farm practices have become considerably more conservative over the past 20 years as producers turn to practices like no-till farming, a way of growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil. The practice prevents erosion, traps moisture in the soil and increases soil nutrients. Farmers learned to conserve after years of devastating losses.

“We raise really pretty decent crops because we get that moisture and we don’t ever let it go,” said Charlie Bumgarner, who farms wheat near Great Falls.

“Back in the early '80s, I remember watching the wind blow over a field east of our house and take everything where we had worked it. I told dad, ‘I don’t think we ever need to have that happen ever again.'”

But better farming practices don’t address all conservation challenges, said Bob Sanders, of Ducks Unlimited. Montana loses 10,000 to 12,000 acres of native prairieland every year. In terms of what the diminished acres means to wildlife, particularly birds, Sanders likens the loss to losing old-growth forest.

One of the conservation incentives wildlife advocates expect to see out of the new farm bill is a provision sharply limiting federal crop insurance subsidies to farmers who bust up native sod.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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