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By Casey Wooten
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) released April 10 legislative language aimed at revamping the Agriculture Department conservation programs.
The USDA operates programs in which the department pays an annual sum to farmers in exchange for producers practicing environmentally friendly land management. The programs paid out about $30 billion in the past decade, according to non-profit watchdog the Environmental Working Group.
Thune’s language is part of the first run of many legislative proposals to be released by lawmakers as they work on the five-year agriculture policy vehicle, set to be completed by late 2018.
The proposal from Thune—a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee—sets out eight changes to various USDA conservation programs, according to a summary provided by Thune’s office.
The proposal would boost the maximum acreage administered by the Conservation Reserve program to 30 million acres from the 24 million acres set by the 2014 farm bill. Thune’s language would also allow “light grazing” on lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.
Another conservation program, the Wetlands Reserve Program, allows the planting of hay on enrolled acres. Thune’s proposal would expand that program to all land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.
“This provision would provide greater flexibility for the use of land enrolled in CRP, reduce the cost of CRP, and eliminate the implementation of emergency haying and grazing of CRP every year,” Thune’s outline said.
The legislative language would also make a host of changes to the USDA conservation easement programs. The USDA secretary would be able to allow land owners to make modifications to land under a conservation easement for “water management, general maintenance, vegetative cover control, wildlife habitat management” or other purposes.
In early March, Thune proposed creating a short-term conservation program that would pay farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from production.
The Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP) would offer three- to five-year options to farmers and allow them to enroll their least-productive acreage into the conservation program in return for a rental payment and additional crop insurance assistance.
Thune said he would release more farm bill proposals as work on the bill continues.
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