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Published July 26, 2011, 09:36 AM

Groups urge farmers to be involved to save programs in next farm bill

WASHINGTON — Farmers are apathetic about the next farm bill and need to get involved if key farm programs are going to be saved, a prominent farm and conservation lobbyist told the National Association of Conservation Districts board July 18.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Farmers are apathetic about the next farm bill and need to get involved if key farm programs are going to be saved, a prominent farm and conservation lobbyist told the National Association of Conservation Districts board July 18.

“I’ve never experienced six months before a farm bill such a deep level of apathy,” Dennis Nuxoll, the American Farmland Trust managing director for federal policy told the NACD board. “We need to talk much more aggressively and vigorously.”

Farmers have “good returns,” Nuxoll noted, saying that if they are concerned about the farm bill at all, it is regarding ethanol and regulatory policy.

“Producers aren’t thinking about conservation,” he said.

Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, added, “This is the most uncertain entry into the farm bill we’ve ever seen,” he said.

The lines between the Agriculture committees and other power centers in Congress have been “blurred,” by the budget talks, Hoefner added.

Farm bill priorities

Nuxoll and Hoefner were two of five farm and conservation lobbyists who discussed their organization’s priorities in the next farm bill. All the lobbyists said they expected budget cuts and think programs need to be made more efficient and also run more efficiently.

Nuxoll said the priorities for AFT, which started the farm and ranch land conservation programs, are programs for working lands, but that the group thinks the programs may need to be targeted more efficiently.

If there were a choice between providing money to one of two dairy farmers through the environmental quality incentives program and one farmer were in a watershed with problems related to the total maximum daily load of nutrients, he said, the money should go to a farmer addressing that problem.

Cuts to conservation?

Sara Hopper, agricultural policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund, said she sees a tension building between the need to have conservation programs in every county in the country to maintain political support for them and getting results through targeting those programs.

But Hoefner said of targeting, “We have to be really, really careful not to destroy the constituency for conservation.”

Hoefner said that if cuts in farm spending occur proportionally, conservation may have a $10 billion to $12 billion funding gap. NSAC, he said, places a high priority on the wetlands reserve program, which is not included in the baseline.

“It’s up to conservationists to keep that going,” he said.

NSAC’s other priorities are an increase in mandatory funds for technical assistance and better coordination between the environmental quality incentives program and the conservation security program.

Hoefner also said that farmers who get subsidized crop insurance should be required to comply with conservation programs. That link was removed because Congress wanted more farmers to sign up for crop insurance but so many farmers now participate in the program that “that argument is over,” he said.

Hoefner also noted that the cost of crop insurance may come to $9 billion this year, which would make it the most expensive of all the farm programs.

NSAC continues to support programs for young and beginning farmers, Hoefner added.

After an audience member noted that some landowners do not want to work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service because they must fill out detailed statements on their incomes to qualify for the programs, Hoefner said NSAC does not push for income limits on conservation programs, but thinks there should be limits on the total amount of money paid to a farmer.

Nathan Bowen, the manager of legislative and regulatory affairs for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, noted that the state agriculture departments have regulatory responsibilities and that when his members meet,

“EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency) is the first thing out of their mouths,” he said

They want to be able to use farm bill programs to attack regulatory requirements such as clean water, Bowen added.

Johnny Broussard, director of legislative affairs and communications for the USA Rice Federation, noted that irrigated rice farms contribute to conservation, particularly the habitat for migratory birds, and urged the conservationists to point out to members of Congress that farm spending is actually less than the Congressional Budget Office projected several years ago.

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