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Published August 07, 2014, 03:59 PM

ND farmers vent about cross-compliance delays

North Dakota farmers couldn’t prevent “cross-compliance” between conservation and crop insurance in the 2014 farm bill, and now are venting their frustration with federal officials and wildlife leaders.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

VALLEY CITY, N.D. — North Dakota farmers couldn’t prevent “cross-compliance” between conservation and crop insurance in the 2014 farm bill, and now are venting their frustration with federal officials and wildlife leaders.

Conflicts became clear on Aug. 6 when Robert Bonnie, U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, visited the state and heard from farmers in what he described later as “frank” criticisms. Bonnie toured with U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., starting with a conservation compliance meeting at Valley City State University. Bonnie said the Natural Resource Conservation Service wants the rules to be as open and transparent as possible.

Heitkamp reminded the audience that she and U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., “stood alone” in the Senate in an effort to try to keep cross-compliance out of the bill. She said she is not optimistic about removing the provision in the future. She noted it was passed with a coalition of environmental and national farm commodity organizations — including the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union.

She said the biggest effect is in North Dakota, where farmers have only recently been working to use field tile drainage to deal with excess moisture.

‘Farming is a business’

Eric Lindstrom, a government affairs representative for Ducks Unlimited, based in Bismarck, N.D., noted that 67 percent of crop insurance premiums are supported by taxpayers and that 95 percent of state producers have been enrolled in farm programs that had required them to comply with environmental rules for years. He talked about ways wildlife groups can help assure compensation for farmers, but observed that — even with the current rules — farmers have been able to achieve record net profits.

Pro-wildlife comments drew the ire of several farmers, including Mike Clemens, a Wimbledon, N.D., farmer and former president of the National Sunflower Association and still a national farm policy leader with the National Corn Growers Association.

“These (young) guys want to start and farm; you guys want to buy us out. I’ve about had it,” Clemens said.

Before leaving the meeting, Clemens complained that he’d had a wetland determination waiting action from the NRCS for nearly three years.

Steve Edwardson, executive administrator of the North Dakota Barley Council, said there has been no accurate measurement of the negative consequences to farmers for not draining nuisance wet zones.

“At the end of the day farming is a business, and they are the best at protecting their own natural resources.”

Intimidation

Jim Broten, a Dazey, N.D., farmer and farm group leader, told Bonnie “intimidation doesn’t make you any friends.” He and his son, Eric, both noted that policies designed to keep “nuisance spots” as wetlands will unintentionally make the soil salty, black and unproductive — a haven for herbicide-resistant weeds and of little benefit to wildlife.

Mary Podoll, NRCS state conservationist, said the agency in the past three years has created a 10-person dispersed compliance team, allowing county and local NRCS officials to “focus on voluntary programs and have a friendlier relationship with the producers.” The state has also used temporary funds to hire contractors to do field work.

Bonnie said $8 million has been spent for the prairie pothole states — North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa — to handle wetlands determinations. About 67,000 requests were made from 2007 to 2013 in that region. In 2012, the backlog was 3,600 requests in North Dakota, and that’s been cut to 850.

Podoll said the NRCS isn’t quite keeping up with the rate of requests on wetland determinations and said she hopes that in a year, the agency will be able to better keep up.

“This is one of my peeves,” Heitkamp interjected. “It shouldn’t take a year. A lot of this is staffing, a lot of this is backlog. A lot of this is, maybe someone needs to give up a couple of acres of wetlands. We need to prioritize and quit nitpicking the small stuff, and take care of the big national concerns. There’s got to be a better way forward. This has to be triaged.”

On a related issue, Bonnie said it’s been estimated 7,000 farmers nationwide might be farming with crop insurance, but not in the farm program. Roughly 800 of North Dakota’s 32,000 farmers might be in that position, says Mary Podoll, NRCS state conservationist. Podoll speculated that 250 to 300 farmers in the state — some with big acreages — might have left the farm program and have to make repairs to retain crop insurance premium subsidies.

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