On the first day of their 2011 Summer Policy Conference last week, Iowa Farm Bureau delegates from across the state agreed on a resolution that soil conservation compliance should be tied to eligibility for farmers to receive federally insured crop insurance. On the second day, the delegates reversed course and passed a resolution urging that "eligibility for crop insurance should not be subject to farm program conservation compliance requirements."
The vote was 57-36 urging no link between federally subsidized crop insurance and soil conservation compliance, which is the requirement that farmers get their soil losses under control if they want to remain eligible to participate in federal farm programs.
The decision disappointed Iowa Farm Bureau president Craig Lang and as well as conservationists who had been heartened by the delegates' previous decision the day before. "I'm disappointed in the outcome but I'm glad we had the debate," says Lang.
Direct payments from USDA farm program have declined in recent years
According to figures complied by the Environmental Working Group, an environmental and agriculture watchdog organization, Iowa farmers received $341.4 million in crop insurance premium subsidies in 2010. That number trailed the $481.6 million Iowa farmers received in direct payments, which the Iowa Farm Bureau delegates said last year that they are willing to end.
As part of the USDA farm program, direct payments to Iowa farmers have declined in recent years. They totaled $2.1 billion in 2001. Crop insurance subsidies to Iowa farmers have increased since 2007, when they were at $49.6 million.
Private insurance for crops, written mainly for hail, flood and other weather disasters, is nonexistant. Bankers and other lenders usually require that farmers buy crop insurance if they want to get a loan. Lang says the federal subsidies for crop insurance amount to about 60% of the total premiums.
Possible end of USDA direct payments to farmers worries conservationists
The end of the USDA direct payments to farmers is widely anticipated as a result of near-record commodity prices and the rise in farm income the past few years. The propsect of the direct payments ending worries conservation groups because the direct payments contain the strongest conservation compliance requirements. In contrast, Congress dropped conservation compliance as a prerequisite for subsidized crop insurance in 1996.
The end of USDA direct payments would have a significant impact, a negative impact, on the conservation compliance incentive, says USDA economist Roger Claassen. Conservation practices generally applied most widely are grass buffer strips which are planted along streams to filter water as it runs off of fields and farmsteads. Also applied to the land most often to keep it from eroding are berms, terraces and no-till planting and conservation tillage on rolling fields.
"We are for soil conservation," says David Wrage, a Farm Bureau delegate from Benton County. "But our membership back home doesn't want the government coming onto their land and telling them what to do."
Conservation compliance is good public relations for farm programs
Lang had hoped to team up with the Izaak Walton League to present a united front politically to help preserve what farmers have called their "farm financial safety net of insurance support". Brad Redlin, who heads up the league's ag program, had reached out to Lang to work together on the new farm bill. Redlin says "It's disappointing that Iowa Farm Bureau changed its mind on it's position on this issue because the Izaak Walton League has made preservation of conservation compliance it's number one priority in the next farm bill."
However, Lang is to be commended for speaking out on the need to try to preserve conservation compliance in the next farm bill, adds Redlin. Meanwhile, Craig Cox, who heads the Environemental Working Group, says "Taxpayers will find it hard to reconcile that farmers are taking tax dollars by participating in USDA farm programs without any strings attached—without any conservation compliance."
Mark Bushkol, a Grundy County farmer who was part of a study committee that introduced the conservation compliance resolution to the delegates, told the policy conference, "This is a public relations issue. Farm Bureau needs to show it means business on soil conservation." However, delegate Corwin Fee of Marion County countered by saying that "I'm all for good public relations, but my farm is my livelihood. Crop insurance is a necessity to farming."