Farm Bill should tie conservation to crop insurance


As Congress and the country wrestle with budget challenges, one spending area certain to be targeted is the federal farm program.

Freshwater President
Gene Merriam

In August, the Freshwater Society joined the Izaak Walton League of America in hosting a forum on the next farm bill that Congress will consider.

Our purpose was to support an important policy goal. That goal is to persuade Congress to restore a requirement – dropped from federal law in 1996 – that farmers taking part in the lucrative and fast-growing crop insurance program must abide by some minimal conservation requirements.

Some lawmakers and some farm groups already have said they expect the budget deficit concerns and the high commodity prices farmers have been receiving will persuade Congress to eliminate various crop subsidies that farmers have received for years. There is much discussion of pairing the elimination of direct payments with an increase in federal subsidies for crop insurance.

In return for the money taxpayers put into taking some of the business risk out of farming, I believe it is entirely reasonable to expect agricultural producers seeking subsidized insurance to meet minimal conservation standards.

Those standards will protect our waters by reducing soil erosion and fertilizer runoff. And those standards, now mandatory in other parts of the farm program, would be eliminated on millions of acres if Congress drops the direct payments without making the conservation standards a requirement for crop insurance.

Federal crop insurance, which insures against price changes as well as yield shortfalls, currently costs taxpayers about $5 billion a year.

It is a good deal for farmers. In most years, they collect significantly more from the insurance than the share they pay of its cost. Between 2001 and 2009, damages paid out to U.S. farmers were 190 percent of the premiums farmers paid, according to University of Missouri research.

We know that agricultural practices are a major cause of water pollution. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2008 that 71 percent of the nitrogen and 80 percent of the phosphorus contributing to the oxygen-deprived “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico came from crop land, pasture and range land.

This August, another USGS study estimated that the average nitrogen concentration in the Mississippi River at Clinton, Iowa, increased 76 percent over the last three decades.

To be sure, many farmers are stewards of the environment. Many practice conservation even as they produce ever-more food – and now fuel. But many farmers must do more. Some must do much more.

This coming re-enactment of the Farm Bill is an opportunity for all of us to press our Senators and Representatives to demand more conservation in return for the federal crop insurance subsidy we all provide.