Senate Committee Passes Farm Bill With $56.8 B in Conservation Programs

The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee approved a five-year farm bill May 14 authorizing $56.8 billion for conservation programs over 10 years.

The bill also that includes a provision to link federal crop insurance and compliance with basic conservation measures to protect highly erodible lands and sensitive wetlands.

On a vote of 15-5, the committee adopted the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013.

Agriculture committee spokesman Ben Becker told reporters the bill will replace a version of the 2012 farm bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reintroduced in January.

The bill’s conservation funding level is the same amount approved by the Senate in 2012. That bill never became law because the House did not act on it.

The funding proposed in the committee-approved bill would save $5 billion in authorized spending on conservation between 2014 and 2023–compared with current spending levels–through streamlining and consolidating 23 existing programs into 13. It also would do so by reducing the acreage enrolled in two Agriculture Department programs: the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

An amendment by Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to revise language in the underlying bill to link crop insurance with conservation compliance was adopted on a voice vote.

The “chairman’s mark” of the 2013 farm bill was released May 9 by the committee ahead of the May 14 markup.

“In the mark, the Conservation Reserve Program acreage cap is gradually reduced from 30 million acres to 25 million acres due to budget constraints, and the conservation title remains essentially the same from last year’s Senate farm bill,” the National Farmers Union said May 9 in a statement.

Payments to Farmer, Ranchers

Under CRP, the Agriculture Department makes annual payments to farmers and ranchers and provides them with cost-share assistance to use certain plants to improve water quality and control soil erosion, which USDA said leads to better wildlife habitat.

In the CSP, the department pays farmers and ranchers to undertake conservation activities, such as improving drainage and reducing erosion, that the states have identified as priorities on working lands.

The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to mark up its bill May 15. That bill was released May 10 and would require steeper cuts in spending authorization in the Agriculture Department’s conservation programs to protect water and soil quality than the bill the committee approved last year (see related story).

Pesticide Amendment Withdrawn

Withdrawn from committee consideration n the Senate bill was a Clean Water Act amendment by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from requiring discharge permits for applying registered pesticides over or around water.

The amendment would have applied to pesticides registered for use, sale, and distribution under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.

Stabenow told Roberts that FIFRA did not fall under the committee’s jurisdiction and asked him to withdraw the amendment.

The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting requirements took effect Oct. 31, 2011, after a 2009 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned an EPA regulation that allowed permitting exemptions for farmers and public health officials who apply pesticides on or near water (National Cotton Council v. EPA, 553 F.3d 927, 68 ERC 1129 (6th Cir., 2009)).

Agreement Reflected in Amendment

Stabenow’s amendment on crop insurance reflects an agreement that 44 groups–including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, and the National Wildlife Federation–reached in exchange for dropping all demands for other reforms to the crop insurance program.

An amendment by Sen. John Hoeven (D-N.D.) to prohibit the inclusion of any conservation compliance requirements with crop insurance was defeated on a voice vote.

The underlying 2013 bill already included conservation compliance language that would link the highly erodible and wetlands conservation measures to the receipt of crop insurance premium subsidies. The provision would require farmers to develop a conservation plan if farming highly erodible land. The plan also would not allow farmers to drain sensitive wetlands.

The Stabenow amendment would make changes to the underlying language to reflect the negotiated deal.

The negotiated agreement also would allow farmers to pay 150 percent of the cost of mitigating wetlands that are five acres in size or smaller, in lieu of losing crop insurance premiums, if found to be out of compliance.

Replacing 2008 Farm Bill

The Senate bill would replace the five-year Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (Pub. L. No. 110-234), which expired Sept. 30, 2012. The 2008 bill authorized $64 billion through Sept. 30, 2012, for USDA conservation programs, including programs aimed at improving water quality on farms and ranches.

Because the 2012 bill was never enacted, the farm bill programs authorized by the 2008 legislation are now operating on a one-year extension enacted in the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (Pub. L. No. 112-240), which ends Sept. 30.