Categorized | Agriculture

Fresh Ideas for the 2012 Farm Bill: The REFRESH Act

Senator Lugar’s (R-IN) recently introduced REFRESH Act makes some broad changes to the Farm Bill as we know it and gets it (mostly) right on two counts: conservation compliance and streamlining programs.

The REFRESH (Rural Economic Farm and Ranch Sustainability and Hunger) Act was introduced in the Senate on October 5, 2011. Lugar’s Indiana colleague Marlin Stutzman (R) introduced the bill in the House. The reform-minded bill makes $40 billion in cuts to many of the major farm bill titles over the next 10 years. The cuts don’t come just from eliminating programs but from re-thinking some deeply entrenched agricultural policies and combining programs for greater efficiency.

Of the changes that the REFRESH Act (the Act) makes to current farm bill conservation provisions, two of those changes align with the conservation principles Defenders and 55 other organizations endorsed at the end of September. The first of those changes requires that participants in the bill’s revenue loss protection program (ARRM) comply with conservation measures such as swampbuster and sodbuster. This is a promising change noted in the bill summary but the language in the actual bill appears to be weaker than the summary suggests. The bill language limits ARRM payments for just the first five crop years on acreage that was planted by tilling native sod. While this is an important first step in re-establishing conservation compliance measures, the measure should be much stronger to ensure that producers receiving subsidies meet basic conservation requirements.

The second piece of the Act that matches the conservation principles mentioned above is conservation program consolidation. Lugar’s bill consolidates four easement programs into a program focused on protecting land for multiple conservation purposes. Working lands programs are similarly consolidated. This consolidation will make programs easier to access for landowners and will reduce the administrative burdens on USDA, meaning our conservation dollars will be spent more effectively. Part of the funding for these consolidations come from a reduction in the acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Savings from reductions in CRP are targeted towards enrolling land in the new easement program, as well as to providing technical assistance to landowners. These changes promote long-term conservation over short-term CRP contracts.

The conservation program reforms in the Act are not perfect. The changes would result in an 18% reduction in conservation program funding and targeting of priority resource concerns could be strengthened by providing more specifics and less reliance on the states.

Senator Lugar is known for introducing “sweeping reforms” to the farm bill that don’t pass but with budgetary concerns looming, Congress may actually have to take ideas found in the REFRESH Act seriously. And at first glance, at least some of these ideas seem like a good place to start.

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- who has written 10 posts on dotWild.

Allison Sribarra is the Conservation Policy Coordinator at Defenders of Wildlife. Alli works on a variety of issues for Defenders' conservation policy program including federal lands policy and conservation planning.

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