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Published March 05, 2012, 11:33 AM

NRCS chief commends conservation title

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is pleased with the farm bill conservation title that the agriculture committees sent to the supercommittee in charge of deficit reduction and is unlikely to take a position on whether conservation compliance should be tied to crop insurance, a key U.S. Department of Agriculture official said Feb. 28.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is pleased with the farm bill conservation title that the agriculture committees sent to the supercommittee in charge of deficit reduction and is unlikely to take a position on whether conservation compliance should be tied to crop insurance, a key U.S. Department of Agriculture official said Feb. 28.

“I think you knocked it out of the park,” Agriculture Department Natural Resources and Conservation Service chief Dave White told the Senate Agriculture Committee at a recent hearing.

White later told reporters that he had not seen the final version of the proposal or its budget score, but that he liked what he had seen of the drafts.

White also told reporters that he doubts the Obama administration will take a position on conservation compliance, and that he has “not been in any discussions” about USDA taking a position.

Some environmental groups have said that, because the bill is likely to eliminate the direct payments program, which has required farmers to adhere to certain conservation standards, the conservation compliance requirement should be added to crop insurance, which also is subsidized.

But farm groups and the crop insurance industry have opposed that on the grounds that tying the two together would be impractical since crop insurance is sold by private companies through individual agents.

White also said that he thinks criticism of the agriculture committees for being secretive about the proposal is unfair, saying that they did not make the rules about the secrecy that surrounded the supercommittee process, and should be praised for coming up with “the best doggone” conservation program they could with the resources available.

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has said, however, that he thinks the draft should have been released after the supercommittee process failed.

The conservation title under consideration would consolidate 26 conservation programs into 13 programs in five general areas. The Conservation Reserve Program, which idles land for conservation and wildlife habitat purposes, would continue to be run by the Farm Service Agency, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Feb. 28. Most other conservation programs are run by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

CRP acres decline

Most discussions of the farm bill take place under the assumption that the proposed conservation title would cut CRP acres from 32 million to 25 million. As commodity prices have risen, farmers have shown a preference for using their land for production and have enrolled only 30 million acres in the program.

White said he thinks the cut was necessary because the committee had to get budget savings “somewhere,” and that the members also used some of the CRP budget to provide funding for the wetland and grassland reserves.

“Lots of good things have come out of CRP,” White said, but he added that he thinks working lands are also wildlife habitat and can be farmed in such a way as to encourage wildlife to use the land in winter.

“I don’t believe there is one farm, ranch or woodlot in America that doesn’t have room for wildlife,” White said.

White also said he thinks USDA will succeed in providing habitat for the sage grouse and avoid its listing as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Interior Department. White said he thinks that if a utility company, for example, provides habitat for a bird before its listing, the company should get credit for that if the bird becomes listed and mitigation is required.

But White said that decision could only be made by Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe or Michael Bean, the counselor for fish and wildlife at the Interior Department.

Farm Service Agency Administrator Bruce Nelson said Feb. 28 that his agency will try to focus CRP “on the most environmentally sensitive acres through the general sign-up and increasingly through continuous enrollments.”

Stabenow said in the hearing she is focused “on building on the progress that was made last year in strengthening conservation programs” by making the programs “simpler, locally driven, science-based and flexible.”

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said that his goal in the farm bill process is “to maintain options for producers while simplifying the programs for producers and those tasked with implementation.

Most farm and conservation groups have also endorsed the conservation title that was written, but six conservation groups sent the chairmen and ranking members of the congressional agriculture committees a letter Feb. 28 saying that the budget for agriculture should be increased.

“Because all farmers and ranchers in all regions are eligible, expanding USDA conservation programs would more equitably distribute scarce federal resources,” the groups said in a letter that also noted that more farmers apply for assistance every year than can be served.

The letter was signed by the Environmental Working Group, Defenders of Wildlife, the Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club.

“We need a Triple Crown conservation title — one with strong funding, substantive policy improvements and a reinvigorated and broadened conservation compliance regime,” Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said in a statement on the coalition’s website.

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