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Farm Bureau maintains support for conservation, nutrition in farm bill

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Delegates to the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual convention Jan. 11 voted to maintain the group's commitment to compliance with government conservation standards as a requirement for crop insurance subsidies, and to keep the nutrition title that authorizes the food stamp program within the farm bill.

But the delegates maintained their support for conservation compliance only after earlier voting to oppose it and then reversing that vote. And a delegate from Alabama proposed removing the nutrition title from the farm bill — a position that hardline conservatives and think tanks have taken.

The action on conservation compliance was the most dramatic part of a delegate session that lasted from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Farm Bureau in the past has opposed conservation compliance for crop insurance subsidies, but agreed to support it during the 2014 farm bill debate because it was a way to gain support for the bill from environmental groups that promised not to oppose farm subsidies in exchange.

North Dakota Farm Bureau President Daryl Lies offered an amendment to put opposition to conservation compliance back in the Farm Bureau's policy book. Lies called the support for conservation compliance a "dance with the devil" because some environmentalists had still opposed Farm Bureau on certain policies and North Dakota faces unusual difficulties in complying with the government standards on conservation.

The delegate body first voted 178 to 139 to oppose conservation compliance.

Second thoughts

But over lunch some delegates had second thoughts, and when all the other policy measures had been considered Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill, who had voted to insert the opposition amendment, asked for reconsideration.

"Coupling provides a lot of integrity to the crop insurance program," Hill said, adding that Farm Bureau had built alliances that helped push the farm bill through Congress.

If conservation compliance remains in the next farm bill, Hill said, "Conservation groups will come to the table to support our programs."

Lies urged delegates to vote against the reversal, arguing that conservation compliance is an example of "incrementalism" that allows provisions that add to farmers' costs to creep into the farm bill.

The current farm bill says that farmers who do not comply with conservation standards can still get crop insurance but won't get the subsidies that pay for 60 percent of the premiums for most farmers. Lies said he has "very good friends" in wildlife and conservation groups who would like to make farmers totally ineligible for crop insurance if they don't comply with conservation requirements.

But Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap rose in support of the amendment to delete the opposition.

Paap said it is "reasonable" to expect farmers who get subsidized crop insurance to comply with conservation standards. He also noted that there is a system of exceptions and appeals, and that farmers who don't comply can still get the insurance without the premium subsidies.

Farm Bureau needs to be able to talk about "what we are going to do better," Paap said.

The delegate body then voted 255 to 85 to take out the provision opposing conservation compliance.

At a news conference, Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said he supported the move to reconsider because partnerships are important in passing the farm bill and because some delegates were confused about what they were voting on.

"It is not only important to have a real good, active safety net for agriculture," Duvall said, but also to make sure food is available through the nutrition programs and to maintain the "partnership built in the last farm."