USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday expanded on what now seems to be a daily plea to legislators: finish the farm bill.
Vilsack was joined via conference call by Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall to highlight the role of a farm bill in conservation efforts. The two explained that soil and water conservation programs could be at risk if a bill is not passed.
Features of conservation efforts in the proposed farm bill, Vilsack said, include a Regional Conservation Program and working lands programs like EQUIP, CSP and CRP. Vilsack also touted a crop insurance-conservation compliance link.
Though an extension of the farm bill has been previously snubbed, both Vilsack and Hall reinforced that outlook, further dismissing its suggestion.
"We are a little concerned about a 'kick the can down the road' one-year extension, which would really have the conservation provisions be at extreme risk," Hall said. "So we are all working together here to make sure that there is a five-year farm bill so that there's some certainty and understanding for the landowners out there."
The push comes as USDA's conservation programs were criticized last month in an Associated Press report regarding the increasing use of corn for ethanol. In the report, it was suggested that land was being taken out of programs like the Conservation Reserve to plant more corn and thus, harvest the corn for ethanol.
Vilsack later pointed out that fewer acres in CRP were the result of a tighter budget for conservation – something that could get even tighter without funding provided in the farm bill.
Both Hall and Vilsack also reiterated the strengths of other USDA-supported measures in the farm bill that are successful in strengthening water and land resources.
Hall specifically noted that cover crops, while not considered under the traditional payment-based structure that is the hallmark of CRP, provides soil conservation and a wildlife habitat at the same time. And, USDA assistance in establishing cover crops and implementing other conservation measures on private land are supported by the farm bill, he said.
"If you look at the soil that is kept in place on the lands as a result of the farm bill and these provisions, one study estimated that it would be enough soil to reach from the Washington Monument to the Capitol 1100 feet deep across the mall," Hall said. "So it really is a lot of soil being held on land, and that's what we need to make sure takes place."
Hall also said partnerships with rice growers and wheat producers are furthering wildlife habitats while providing soil protection.
For Vilsack, the road ahead for providing not only conservation measures in the farm bill, but also other protections, like crop insurance and nutrition assistance, will continue to be tough. Farm bill stakeholders, like Vilsack now and House Speaker John Boehner, are beginning to show limited optimism as the end of the year draws near.
Making special mention of the bill, Boehner said during a press conference Tuesday that Senate Democrats are in the way of agreement on not only a farm bill, but also budget negotiations.
"I want the farm bill conference to be completed," Boehner said. "It is time for the other chamber to get serious about getting this work finished."
However, Vilsack reiterated support of key negotiators Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.
"We don't want to make the perfect be the enemy of the good. There are tremendous opportunities in this bill," Vilsack said.