Conservation, insurance compromise offers option
By MARY KAY THATCHER
For the Capital Press
Farm Bureau recently joined with a large and diverse coalition of agricultural, crop insurance, conservation and environmental organizations to support the "re-linking" of compliance with conservation programs by farmers receiving crop insurance premium assistance. This came as a surprise to some people, as much of agriculture argued against including compliance amendments in the farm bill debated on the Senate floor in 2012.
Why did Farm Bureau join this coalition effort? Because the other half of the agreement also brought all of these groups together to oppose means testing, payment limitations or reductions in premium subsidies to the crop insurance program -- in essence a commitment to do everything possible to protect and keep a strong crop insurance program.
A close look at the compliance provision in the Senate-passed farm bill reveals that it is much different than what was passed by the Senate last year. That measure included provisions that could have been economically disastrous for farmers.
The conservation compliance linkage approved by the Senate provides balance, fairness and a measure of certainty for farmers regarding the availability of risk management tools while helping to conserve natural resources. This "win-win" compromise was reached by Farm Bureau and numerous other organizations that came together under a banner of common-sense and collaboration.
HR2260, a House amendment offered by Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., to the farm bill, continues crop insurance availability to help farmers manage risk and meet the requirements of their lenders. However, if a farmer is found to be out of compliance with conservation mandates, his or her eligibility for premium assistance would be eliminated until compliance conditions are satisfied. But the compromise worked out by the coalition focuses on providing more balance and fairness for farmers in the steps necessary to meet compliance compared to what was proposed in 2012.
One of the biggest concerns about the version of conservation compliance included in the 2012 Senate-passed farm bill was the so-called "claw-back provision." That meant that someone found to have converted wetlands to croplands 20 years ago could have been forced to repay the government all past insurance premium assistance received since the conversion occurred. This could have cost farmers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In addition, last year's bill called for an immediate cutoff from program assistance eligibility. That provision has been eliminated in the amendment. Instead, a farmer found out of compliance would only become ineligible for premium assistance in the crop year following the discovery of an infraction. With increased reliance on crop insurance as a primary risk management tool, this modification was imperative to ensure that farmers' ability to acquire and secure operating loans is not jeopardized.
Further, any farmers subject to conservation compliance provisions for the first time will have five years to develop and comply with the highly erodible land and wetland compliance requirements. Accelerated technical assistance would be available to these "first-timers."
Farm bill language that would have unfairly penalized farmers who rent land if their landlords did not meet conservation requirements also was eliminated by making only the farm where a wetlands violation occurred ineligible, rather than all the lands farmed by the tenant. This assumes the tenant made good faith efforts to meet conservation requirements and the landlord did not agree to cooperate.
As during the Senate debate, agricultural, crop insurance and conservation groups are united in urging support for a workable crop insurance program without new burdensome and harmful requirements, while preventing adoption of amendments that would drive farmers away from program participation.
Mary Kay Thatcher is the American Farm Bureau Federation's farm policy specialist.