Farm Bill Cuts Might Cut Conservation, Too

Farm programs will likely cost the government less under any new farm bill, but the policy could be bad for the environment. Both House and Senate versions would end a big subsidy, called direct payments, that has paid money to land owners — whether they needed it or not — if they complied with certain conservation regulations. The two chambers' versions of the bill differ on how, or even if, to incent farmers to take care of their land. But both versions would stop funding to keep at least five million acres of land out of production.

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Congress is up against a tight deadline to try to come up with Farm Bill. A Conference Committee is now taking up the differences between House and Senate versions. The big sticking point is much to cut food stamps. But conferees will also likely decide the fate of environmental regulations that govern vast stretches of the nation's cropland. And that has some environmentalists and farmers worried, as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Most farmers work and live their lives a long way from Washington, D.C. They generally do not like Washington politicians telling them how to manage their family's land. That's why it's startling to stand out here on a frozen field near Lone Jack, Missouri and hear Danny Barker pleading for federal red tape.

DANNY BARKER: Not all regulations are bad. Most are but some are not. And this - thank goodness for conservation - is something that we really do need as an industry.

MORRIS: Barker has graded terraces into this field to trap rain and keep his precious soil from running down stream. Like many farmers, he feels a strong sense of stewardship for the land. But Barker says record-high crop prices and huge profits in recent years have sparked a gold rush of sorts, with some corporate farmers mining the soil.

BARKER: Basically, they pillage and plunder, so to speak. But over a 10-year period, why, you get your soil washed down to bedrock and that's not good for anybody.

MORRIS: For years, a program called Direct Payments has kept this kind of farming in check. The subsidy shells out almost $5 billion a year to landowners, but only if they comply with certain environmental regulations. They can't drain wetlands or plow up certain grassland and they have to take steps to curb runoff. But Direct Payments, roundly thrashed as a giveaway to rich farmers, will almost certainly die with the next Farm Bill, setting up a possible vacuum, according to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack.

SECRETARY THOMAS VILSACK: The thing that we use to connect conservation compliance to is going away, so you have to replace it. Some people want to replace it with nothing. Others want to replace it with crop insurance.

MORRIS: Most farmers rely heavily on federally subsidized crop insurance. It's become far and away the biggest farm program. Iowa State professor Chad Hart says substituting crop insurance for Direct Payments means taking a tougher line on environmental compliance.

CHAD HART: They're trying to make sure that if you fail on that, there's a very heavy stick that comes with that failure.

MORRIS: The House, though, takes a softer approach, according to Iowa State's Bruce Babcock.

BRUCE BABCOCK: The House bill ties conservation compliance to other programs that aren't worth so much to farmers.

MORRIS: Programs that would pay farmers when market prices for their crops fall below certain levels or when bad weather cuts into their yields a bit. But Craig Cox with the Environmental Working Group notes that most years, these new subsidies won't disperse as much money to as many farms as Direct Payments did and that's a problem.

CRAIG COX: That's going to be a disaster for the environment. And the cuts to conservation programs are incredibly irresponsible.

MORRIS: Now, Cox is talking about the Conservation Reserve Program. It rents land from farmers who agree to take it out of production for the good of the environment. Congress is cutting it by at least seven million acres. Other subsidies likely to pass will take more of the risk out of agriculture. So, while some farmers could see stronger incentives to conserve, overall, it's not likely the new farm bill will do much for the environment. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

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