The U.S. Senate passed its version of a Farm Bill yesterday by a vote of 66-27. Both Minnesota Senators Al Franken (D-MN) and Amy Klobuchar( D-MN) voted for passage of the bill.
The upshot is that for the first time ever the Senate bill limits the degree of crop insurance subsidies wealthy farm investors and operators can receive. The bill establishes a $750,000 adjusted gross income limit, requiring the largest operators to pay more of their share of crop insurance premiums. Income limits are something that virtually all other farm programs embrace but shockingly, federally subsidized crop insurance has eluded such caps up until now.
It’s also noteworthy and encouraging that the Senate bill requires farmers who participate in the federally subsidized crop insurance program to have in place basic soil and water conservation measures for fragile landscapes.
These reforms to crop insurance, which at $94 billion over 10 years is the largest farm-orientated spending in the Farm Bill, are not nearly enough, but do represent a step in the right direction. The U.S. Senate should be applauded for inclusion of these measures in the bill. We are hopeful the U.S. House will make similar strides as it takes up its version of the Farm Bill later this month.
Crop insurance is an important tool to help farmers manage risk. But as conceived and delivered now it creates environmental and economic disparities in farm country, fueling land consolidation and concentration. It should be noted that while some programmatic reforms moved forward on crop insurance, overall Congress is looking to expand this program, which should be a concern to anyone who cares about viable rural communities and land conservation.
The Senate bill also renewed funding for key programs such as the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which has already helped launch various community-based farmer training programs around the country. Along with new farmer investments, embedded in the bill is a collection of needed organic and local foods measures.
The troubling news is the Senate bill reduces conservation funding by $5.6 billion. This is of particular concern given the numerous reports of severe erosion and runoff that are emerging from the countryside this spring. Now is not the time to shortchange key working lands initiatives like the Conservation Stewardship Program. Even though Congress has made it clear a new Farm Bill must cost less and contribute to deficit reduction, slashing conservation while expanding the crop insurance program is not acceptable. To make things worse, the Farm Bill passed by the U.S. House Agriculture Committee starts with even deeper cuts to the conservation title.
LSP in principle cannot support these losses to farmland conservation.
Later in June all eyes will turn to the U.S. House floor debate on the Farm Bill. This debate is sure to be much more contentious and divided than what we saw in the Senate. For a final Farm Bill to become a reality, legislation must be passed on the House floor and then conferenced with the recently passed Senate Farm Bill. That conference committee product must then make it back through both chambers before reaching President Barack Obama’s desk.
As the 2013 Farm Bill debate advances, LSP and its allies will continue to work for 21st Century farm policy that includes meaningful reforms, stronger conservation investments and improvements for beginning farmers, local and regional food systems and independent livestock producers.
Adam Warthesen is an LSP organizer who works on federal farm policy. He can be reached via e-mail or at 612-722-6377.