Senate Farm Bill Hearing Tackles Conservation

Super Committee recommendations offer “good starting point” for farm bill conservation title, but more is needed.

The overall consensus from those in the agricultural industry and Congress is a need to consolidate and streamline conservation programs to best address environmental needs while also capitalizing on the private public - partnership that exists in today’s conservation programs, according to testimony heard Feb. 28 in the Senate Agriculture Committee farm bill hearing on conservation.

The hearing was the second held by the Senate Agriculture Committee on the reauthorization of the farm bill as it takes the lead in hoping to pull the pieces together for a new farm bill.

A main theme from both Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was the need to focus on program simplification, consolidation, flexibility and accountability.

“A single program will not meet the needs of all producers, but we have gone too far in the other direction,” Roberts said. “We now have duplicative programs that have become more and more complicated. It’s an alphabet soup when I look at all of these programs. My goal during this Farm Bill process is to maintain options for producers while simplifying the programs for producers and those tasked with implementation.”

Roberts noted that spending is more than twice what it was in 2001 for conservation programs and conservation spending is predicted to top commodity title spending in the next few years.

“You cannot have this type of growth without learning some lessons about what is working and what is not, how producers are reacting to programs, and the capability of the Department to implement programs quickly,” he said.  

Roberts noted in his opening remarks that good progress was made on a conservation title last fall, and the members plan to refine that work from a “solid starting point” that has been established. Although that draft document was never officially released, the conservation portion of the proposal focused on program consolidation.

The Natural Resources Conservation Services worked with farmers between 2009 and 2011 to enroll more than 127 million acres of land in 12 different farm bill conservation programs.

Stabenow asked how the committee could build on previous conservation success as the next Farm Bill is drafted, NRCS Chief David White responded by strongly endorsing the super committee recommendations drafted by the House and Senate Agriculture Committees in preparation for a final super committee work product, which was never implemented.

In testimony Becky Humphries, of Ducks Unlimited, praised Stabenow’s efforts last year in strengthening conservation programs as part of the recommendations to the super committee, and further pressed the need to include similar provisions in the 2012 Farm Bill.

“Farmers and ranchers, conservationists and sportsmen, and all citizens have much to gain from successful, sustainable farming that conserves soil, water and wildlife,” Humphries said. “The regional partnership program developed in the Super Committee report is a great idea that needs to find its way in this next Farm Bill. Regional partnerships fueled by local diverse interest groups and supported by federal, state and private funders, are a key to accomplish watershed approaches and solutions that will yield a good farm economy and a healthy sustainable environment.”

In questioning, Stabenow asked Farm Service Agency administrator Bruce Nelson what the committee should consider with record high land prices paired with high commodity prices and the significant pressure to keep land out of the Conservation Reserve Program. Nelson responded environmentally sensitive lands need to be targeted. To listen to Administrator Nelson’s full response, just click here

Nelson testified there are now 29.7 million acres in the program, down nearly 20% from a high of 36.8 million acres at the end of FY 2007. Contracts on 6.5 million acres are scheduled to expire at the end of FY 2012, and a new CRP general sign-up would begin on March 12 and end on April 6, 2012.

Technological innovations that could enable producers to access USDA conservation program information remotely via the Internet were also noted at Tuesday’s hearing. In response to a question about program access from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., White talked about a computer program under development that could save producers 750,000 hours a year.

Likewise, Nelson spoke about USDA modernization efforts and getting the Department away “from 1985 computers” that are used to administer some programs. The new technology would enable producers to have more remote access to important program information through the Internet.

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