Tag Archive | "REFRESH Act"

Committees Move Forward with Plans to Pass a Farm Bill in 2012

Committees Move Forward with Plans to Pass a Farm Bill in 2012

Senate Agricultural Committee Chairwoman, Debbie Stabenow (D – MI) announced last week that the Senate and House agricultural committees would work to pass a new Farm Bill in 2012, with the goal of having draft legislation introduced by spring of next year. This may prove to be an ambitious schedule and time will only tell what the next Farm Bill holds for conservation. Going on the few clues we have, we can expect less money and more consolidation and streamlining of some of the most important programs for conservation.

In this fiscal climate, we want lawmakers to use this opportunity to do more with less – by consolidating and streamlining programs there is potential to get better conservation outcomes even as we have fewer resources to work with. Senator Lugar’s REFRESH Act takes this challenge, reducing the acres allotted to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and directing environmentally sensitive lands into a consolidated easement program. Although the House and Senate Agricultural Committees failed to release their plans to trim $23 billion from the Farm Bill, from what we know of the proposal, the Committees proposed a similar reduction in CRP, though based on the summary of the plan, the consolidated easement program is likely a bit different, focusing on agricultural and wetland easements, rather than the broad suite of conservation purposes under the REFRESH Act’s easement program.

It is difficult to say whether the changes proposed by Senator Lugar’s bill and the Ag committees will make it into the final Farm Bill. Chairwoman Stabenow, as well as other House and Senate Ag Committee members want the changes they proposed to the conservation title to be a part of the next Farm Bill.

There are a few principles that can ensure that consolidation and streamlining efforts do indeed make for more effective conservation. As the Committees build on their existing work and other members of Congress weigh in, any conservation program consolidation should focus on:

  • Greater flexibility for the Natural Resources Conservation Service to engage partners such as land trusts to fulfill program goals
  • Increasing the availability of technical assistance to landowners interested in implementing conservation easements or other practices on their land.
  • Reducing acreage in CRP and targeting highly sensitive land to longer term protection via conservation easements
  • Investing in conservation practices that improve producers’ conservation performance, instead of paying for practices that would have been adopted anyway.
  • Targeting practices, including land protection, towards areas and resource concerns of the highest priority.

We’ll be looking out for these principles as the Farm Bill debate starts up again 2012. Stay tuned.

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Fresh Ideas for the 2012 Farm Bill: The REFRESH Act

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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