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Farm Bill proposals to affect conservation, specialty crop production

Feb. 23, 2012 | 0 comments

Fourth and final in a series exploring the Farm Bill debate - where it's been and where it's going.

In the last Farm Bill debate, producers of specialty and organic crops - which receive no subsidies like "program crops" - organized into an alliance to lobby Congress.

They told lawmakers that they didn't want subsidies but would like federal dollars to be spent on research, outreach, data collection and institutional support.

Paul Mitchell, a University of Wisconsin-Madison agricultural economist, said this organized approach through the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance worked.

Several programs were written into the 2008 bill to enhance specialty crop productivity and competitiveness.

This group, he said, carries some weight when its members lobby lawmakers, since specialty crops as a whole account for between one-third and one-half of the total farm gate receipts from U.S. crop production.

Specialty crops are important in Wisconsin.

The state is ranked second nationally in processing vegetables with other large specialty crops playing a vital role in the state economy - potatoes, cranberries and ginseng, to name a few.

As they prepare for another Farm Bill the specialty crop coalition is taking a similar approach to this year's Farm Bill.

"Specialty crop producers and organic producers have a totally different vision of what a Farm Bill should do for them," Mitchell said.

Historically, California has played a very small role in Farm Bill debates, he said, but as the home of the nation's largest specialty crop segment, the state has been active in the coalition for specialty crops and that gives some political weight to the coalition.

Politically there is reason for the coalition to hope they can prevail again in this Farm Bill debate, Mitchell said. The Senate Agriculture Committee chair is Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Michigan has a large production of specialty crops.

That political and demographic calculus has led the Specialty Crop Farm Bill alliance to ask for increases in federal funding for their pet programs, despite the overarching climate of fiscal austerity that prevails in Congress.

In general, Mitchell said, this coalition is taking the position that they don't want direct income support but would rather see the government enact policies that increase the productivity and competitiveness of their specialty and organic products.

In a special report prepared for the Agriculture Outlook Conference on the UW-Madison campus, Mitchell noted that specialty crop growers believe their vision of federal support for agriculture in the 2008 Farm Bill is superior to that of other commodity groups.

They encourage a serious evaluation of agriculture policy along the lines of what they proposed last time.

Still hard to predict

Though it's hard to predict at this time which way farm policy may go, it's possible that the growing influence of this group and its members' new take on farm policy may have an effect on the debate this year, Mitchell said.

The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance has developed a short and sweet proposal for this year's Farm Bill debate.

It advocates for a permanent disaster assistance program and calls for an end to the Planting Transferability Pilot Program, which allowed a producer to plant specialty crops on a set amount of base acres without permanently losing eligibility for commodity programs.

Mitchell said the coalition had lobbied for, and gotten, this program in the last Farm Bill but they apparently don't think it worked. "It seems likely that this program will be eliminated," he said.

In their position paper for the 2012 Farm Bill, the coalition supports targeting 25 percent of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding specifically for specialty crop producers, making pest management a priority for participation in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and eliminating the adjusted gross income limits for farmers enrolled in conservation programs.

Mitchell said the specialty alliance's proposal asks for the federal government to maintain or even slightly increase the amount of funding available for its programs and includes various programs that would promote the consumption of specialty crop foods.

The group also is seeking more funds for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and Specialty Crop Block grants.

The coalition also wants to see increased funding for an international database of maximum residue levels and other measures that would improve the exportation of U.S. specialty crops.

Given its short and specific list of suggestions and its influence, Mitchell says, it seems likely that the Specialty Crops Farm Bill Alliance will have some success when the 2012 Farm Bill get passed.

But he still wonders how many of the specialty growers' goals can be achieved in the current budget climate.

Organic trade group sets goals

The Organic Trade Association has also put out its set of Farm Bill priorities, asking for additional funding of the National Organic Program to insure the integrity of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic seal.

As the market has grown for organic products, there has been mounting concern about the integrity of some organic products, and that's something organic advocates see as undermining their entire marketplace.

Mitchell said the organic industry has some proposals for this Farm Bill that are similar to those of the specialty crop group. They are asking for more funding for existing organic research and outreach programs and want EQIP funding to be more accessible to organic producers.

They are also lobbying for program changes that would improve crop insurance and disaster assistance for organic growers.

The organic group has also asked that the USDA continue a program to collect data on the organic industry to provide reliable information on a rapidly growing industry.

Conservation programs

Federal conservation programs, which have helped shaped the agricultural landscape, will most likely see a funding decrease in the coming Farm Bill.

"The current emphasis on federal budget cutting makes it likely that conservation funding will be reduced in the 2012 Farm Bill," he said.

But how much and which programs will take the greatest hit is still an open question in the 2012 Farm Bill debate.

Some of the debate will boil down to questions of "land sharing" programs like EQIP or "land sparing" programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has had the traditional focus of taking land out of production.

During a presentation at the recent Corn/Soy Expo, Mitchell noted that with commodity prices where they are today, many growers are not interested in setting their land aside for 10 years under the CRP program.

"They're not re-enrolling. They're planting corn."

As Farm Bill talks get underway there is some consideration of an idea to increase crop insurance subsidies rather than maintaining federal disaster programs for farmers, he said.

This has led to discussions of requiring farmers to comply with conservation measures on their land to qualify for crop insurance.

Currently, conservation compliance is required for farmers to be eligible for direct payments, counter cyclical payments, marketing assistance loans and the ACRE program (an acronym for average crop revenue election) but those programs may be eliminated and with them the "stick" to force farmers to comply with conservation practices.

Requiring conservation compliance from farmers who use crop insurance may be a way to maintain some level of assurance that they are doing things right. Some environmental and conservation groups have lobbied for such an idea.

"This would be something that would be 'free' to the government and would be a way to win some votes from urban districts," he said. "You can see that might be the kind of horse trading that goes on."

Compliance important

to environmentalists

The weakening of conservation compliance requirements, said Mitchell, has been a subject of intense debate, with many environmental advocates raising concerns about long-term impact on soil erosion.

Currently farmers must have conservation plans in place for cropping highly erodible land or they are not eligible for government payments.

Some people he has talked to believe federal conservation program cuts could be as deep as 25 percent, Mitchell said.

Land retirement programs, like the CRP, have been operated in a way that removes the most environmentally sensitive land from production because these areas contribute the most to soil erosion.

These have been popular programs with conservation and wildlife groups because they provide habitat for certain species - notably grassland birds and waterfowl. The large tracts of land that have been enrolled in the CRP have been of particular benefit to these species.

A draft summary of proposed changes to the Farm Bill, says Mitchell, included capping total CRP acreage at 25 million, down 22 percent from the current cap or 32 million acres.

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