There's No Good Reason to Delay Conservation Compliance

RJ Lehmann
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Posted: Jul 19, 2015 12:00 PM
There's No Good Reason to Delay Conservation Compliance

Even as the U.S. Department of Agriculture was reporting a record 98.2 percent of farmers and ranchers have met new "conservation compliance" guidelines required to qualify for federally subsidized crop insurance, some in Congress are pushing for needless delays that would allow more time to keep destroying the environment on the taxpayers' dime.

According to the USDA, just 1.8 percent of affected producers failed to meet the June 1 deadline set in the 2014 farm bill to submit an AD-1026 form with the Farm Service Agency. The paperwork simply identifies highly erodible land and wetlands that a farmer has or will convert to agricultural use. Under provisions of the current farm bill, an additional 1.5 million acres of highly erodible land and 1.1 million acres of wetlands will be covered by conservation compliance programs, according to the department.

The USDA certainly can't be accused of not letting farmers and ranchers know the deadline was coming. Notifications have accompanied every crop insurance contract written in the past year for the nation's 561,000 policyholders and insurance agents who sell the policies have been ordered to highlight the deadline. The department also mailed out more than 50,000 reminder cards and letters; made more than 25,000 phone calls and held information sessions across the countries for more than 6,000 groups.

But bowing to pressure from fruit and vegetable producers, represented by the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, the House Appropriations Committee gave unanimous support last week to a $143.9 billion Fiscal Year 2016 Agriculture Appropriations bill that will delay enforcement of conservation compliance for another year.

The Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday marked up its own version of the legislation, which thankfully did not include the delay. But this leaves a major question to resolve as both measures move to their respective chambers' floors.

Despite having a name seemingly designed to enrage conservatives – for whom both "conservation" and "compliance" tend to be dirty words – the requirements actually are common-sense measures intended to protect taxpayers as much as they are the environment.

First signed by Ronald Reagan in 1985, conservation compliance offers farmers a basic deal. They can do whatever they want with their own land. But if they want to enjoy subsidies from the taxpayers, who pay 62 percent of farmers' insurance premiums, they have to take some basic precautions to ensure they conserve soil and don't drain fragile wetlands. Since the program's inception, it's estimated it has saved more than $1 billion and about 2 billion tons of soil.

There are only about 10,000 farmers who aren't already in compliance and the USDA believes the vast majority are those who have died, retired or submitted forms with mismatched identifications or other paperwork errors. The department has said it will need to contact about 2,500 farmers individually, and many would be granted the opportunity to extend the deadline. The actual number of noncomplying farmers, for whom enforcement of the entire program would be put on hold, could be as low as a couple dozen.

It's also already the case that who have not participated in USDA programs before June 1 can delay certification for the current reinsurance year and those who have already filed are still allowed to make corrections to their forms. For most farmers, conservation compliance is not new, as it was a requirement of the "direct payments" program created in 1995, but abolished as part of the 2014 farm bill. Producers of commodity crops like grain, oilseed and cotton already haveto meet the requirements to be eligible for other programs.

The decision to reattach conservation compliance to crop insurance subsidy eligibility is one of the few good things to come out of the 2014 farm bill. It would be folly for Congress to put off implementation for even one more day. As Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told the site Agri-Pulse: "There is no issue or problem that such a delay would be solving."