Why wildlife groups embrace large farmers and crop insurance
By Sara Wyant
Environmental groups have been attacking crop insurance premiums and other farm bill subsidies, suggesting that it’s time to get large, wealthy farmers off the government dole.
The Environmental Working Group offered a good example of the growing campaign, stating, “If the 113th Congress ever manages to come together to pass a new farm bill, it will be in the best interest of taxpayers to end direct payments once and for all and to apply means testing and payment limits to crop insurance subsidies.”
But for the “hook and bullet” crowd, it’s a much different story. Wildlife and sportsmen’s groups are embracing ways to keep large farmers involved in government programs in exchange for meeting conservation rules aimed at preventing erosion and preserving fragile grasslands and wetlands.
“From a wildlife perspective, we want the large guys in these programs,” says Dan Wrinn, director of Public Policy with Ducks Unlimited. “If you want to maximize wetlands and ducks, it makes little sense to penalize large producers.”
That’s one of the reasons that DU, Pheasants Forever, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation and others teamed up with major farm organizations earlier this year to fight means testing on crop insurance in exchange for linking the popular risk management program to conservation compliance requirements.
In a sense, it was a deal born out of necessity for both sides. For years, Wrinn and his fellow lobbyists focused on land retirement programs. But then they watched farm prices swing dramatically upward and acres pour out of the Conservation and Grasslands Reserve Programs. Farm bill proposals were likely to cap enrollment in those programs at even tighter levels.
Wrinn says he and his 800,000 members realized it was time for a different strategy focused on working lands which are increasingly controlled by larger producers. His organization is already working with rice producers to improve duck habitat.
“This was recognition from DU and others that the people who want to dismantle crop insurance were going to be harmful to the ultimate resources they were trying to protect,” explains Bruce Knight, a former chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and who know leads his own consulting firm.
At the same time, farm organizations were looking for new allies to fend off amendments designed to limit crop insurance subsidies and tighten down farm program payment eligibility.
“In many ways, this was a natural farm bill alliance that just made sense,” noted American Farm Bureau Federation Lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher. Since the 1985 farm bill, landowners needed to meet minimal conservation commitments to receive farm program payments. However, since 1996, conservation compliance has not been required for producers receiving taxpayer-funded crop insurance premium subsidies.
The groups worked with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow to turn their agreement into legislative language. More than 90 percent of producers already participate in USDA conservation compliance programs, but farmers, including many fruit and vegetable growers who have not been subject to conservation compliance in the past, will have two years to develop a conservation or mitigation plan to retain eligibility for crop-insurance premium subsidies.
During the Senate farm bill debate in June, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-IL, and Tom Coburn, R-OK, pushed for an amendment that would limit crop insurance premium subsidies to anyone with an average adjusted gross income in excess of $750,000.
Stabenow pushed back, noting the historic agreement between the conservation and wildlife groups and the farm organizations. But the strategy produced mixed results. The Durbin/Coburn amendment passed by 59 to 33. However, the means testing will not take effect until after USDA completes a study on the potential impacts of the limitation potentially delaying the requirement for years to come.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, has long opposed linking conservation compliance to crop insurance and successfully fought against similar amendments during the House floor debate.
However, Lucas reportedly told a group at the South Dakota State Fair in August that there is a strong sentiment in Congress to allow the federal government to exert influence over the production decisions of farmers who receive subsidies. Responding to South Dakota Ducks Unlimited Chair Jeff Heidelbauer, Lucas was quoted in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader as saying: “In the final farm bill, I suspect there will be conservation compliance.” He later told Heidelbauer, “I think you are going to be really quite pleased with what ultimately comes out of this.” Sources who attended the event confirmed these comments, but a spokesperson for House Ag Committee says the Argus Leader report is inaccurate, noting the Chairman’s opposition to the linkage.
For her part, Stabenow seems determined to keep the historic compromise alive in the final farm bill. Recently, more than 100 House members came out in support. Regardless of the outcome, Wrinn wants to continue working with agricultural groups, searching for ways both ducks and farmers can benefit.
“This is not a date with the agricultural community, it’s a marriage,” says Wrinn. “These groups want a long-term relationship.”
Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant can be reached at www.agri-pulse.com.