Senate Farm Bill Advances With Support Of Groups Despite Conservation Finance Cuts

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Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012

Key Provisions: The Senate farm bill would cut financial assistance for conservation by about $6.5 billion over 10 years and streamline programs.

What's Next: The full Senate will take up the bill next.

By Alan Kovski  

Federal funding for conservation programs would be reduced by $6.5 billion over 10 years as the programs are combined for streamlining under a farm bill passed April 26 by the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The committee voted 16-5 to approve the Agricultural Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012 to reauthorize farm programs through fiscal year 2017.

The Agriculture Department's largest conservation program, the Conservation Reserve Program, was targeted to provide a large part of the savings. The bill specifies a year-by-year reduction in the cap on acreage that can participate in the program, from the current 32 million acres to a 2017 maximum of 25 million acres.

Streamlining will combine 23 programs into 13 programs without a loss of the functions in the merged programs.

The bill also includes a provision that would provide $800 million in mandatory spending on renewable energy programs over five years (see related story).

'We Hope to Have Prompt Action.'

Representatives of agricultural interests, speaking at a House subcommittee hearing while the Senate committee was marking up the bill, expressed support for the legislation as a carefully crafted bipartisan accomplishment, but they cautioned that the cuts in financial assistance were about as much as the program could tolerate.

The $6.5 billion in cuts may be unavoidable in a time of fiscal restraint, Garry Niemeyer, president of the National Corn Growers Association, told the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy, and Forestry.

“But no more,” he said.

Niemeyer testified not only for the corn growers association but also for several of the largest farm groups. “We hope to have prompt action on this bill,” he said.

The bill drew similar cautious support from David E. Nomsen, a vice president of the conservation group Pheasants Forever, who spoke on behalf of that group, three other conservation groups, and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which represents state government agencies.

Nomsen cautioned that farmers need an adequate financial safety net so that they can invest in conservation programs.

Streamlining Through Program Mergers.

Jon Scholl, president of the American Farmland Trust, told the subcommittee that it will be important to preserve core functions of the many programs if they are combined for streamlining.

The Senate bill proposes, for example, that an Agricultural Conservation Easement Program be established to combine the wetlands reserve program, the grassland reserve program, and the farmland protection program.

It also proposed a Regional Conservation Partnership Program to combine the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes watershed programs, the agricultural water enhancement program, and the cooperative conservation partnership initiative.

Nomsen argued that the programs need to be more flexible to be valuable.

By Alan Kovski