CRP, Farm Bill programs fall victim to gridlock

September 18, 2012 at 04:49 PM

Time is running out on conservation programs credited with helping restore populations of waterfowl and grassland birds.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and its components likely will be suspended when the clock runs out and the 2008 Farm Bill expires Sept. 30.

CRP provides rental payments to landowners that agree to take erosion-prone or marginal farmland out of production and plant grass or trees.

About 30 million acres are under contract nationwide.

The programs cost about $2 billion in fiscal 2012.

A version of the 2012 Farm Bill passed by the United States Senate would cost about $1 trillion spread over five years.

Most of that – about 70 percent – goes to nutritional programs including Food Stamps.

Daniel Wrinn, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited, said Tuesday he is concerned it could be difficult to bring programs back once they are suspended.

“Given some of the budget politics in play here, if you let some of these programs pass quietly into the night, you will have politicians say, ‘Hey, we can save $2 billion dollars here,’” he said.

Allowing CRP to quietly expire would provide political cover, allowing elected officials to avoid a vote.

“If you allow them to expire, no one pulled the trigger and killed the patient,” Wrinn said. “They just kind of unplugged the machine.

“We are going to have to work very hard over the winter to make sure our members and hunters and anglers don’t let that happen.”

Wrinn said it is unlikely a last-minute solution can be found.

“Unless there is an unforeseen push back on Capitol Hill right now, the current Farm Bill is going to expire,” he said.

The bill now is on hold until after the November election.

Existing contracts would be honored, Winn said, but no new signups would be held.

That means acres coming out of the program at the end of their contract term would not be replaced, leading to a loss of wildlife habitat.

Conservation groups, like Ducks Unlimited, also are concerned that high commodity prices already were putting additional pressure on farmers not to re-enroll, but to return restored grassland to crops.

“Conventional wisdom is that even the continuous signup will stop,” Wrinn said. “They will not be signing up anymore acres.”

Continuous signup is for landowners wanting to plant strips of grass in waterways to slow down and filter runoff.

The U.S.D.A. says nearly 4 million acres were accepted into CRP in 2012 and an additional 221,666 acres were allotted to the continuous signup.

The Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill last summer, but has not yet been considered by the House of Representatives.

Even though there were some reductions to conservation programs, “it was done in a way that was responsible,” Wrinn said.

Through cuts and consolidation, the version passed by the Senate cuts about $6 billion out of conservation programs over the five-year life of the bill.

“We don’t like cuts to conservation ever,” Wrinn said. “But we knew going in that we would have to responsibly cut ourselves or have others come in and cut us.

“And looking at the bills that resulted, we chose wisely.”

Historically, Farm Bills are generally bi-partisan affairs because they contain something for everyone, Wrinn said.

“Simply put: the clock just ran out.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.

No chance to break gridlock in Congress

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Efforts in Congress to provide emergency drought aid to hard-hit farmers and overhaul crop subsidy programs appear to be falling victim to Washington gridlock.

Talk of action now to avoid sending the economy over the “fiscal cliff” is just that, talk.

Indeed, lawmakers have only been back in session for a couple of days since returning from their August recess, but on Tuesday were already anticipating a quick exit from Washington to hit the campaign trail — with the only significant accomplishment being a must-pass bill to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month.

Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol, like so many other days, featured lots of talk but little action.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, started the day off on a sour note by telling reporters after a closed-door morning caucus with the GOP rank and file that he’s not confident Congress can reach a budget deal late this year and avoid a downgrading of the U.S. debt rating.

A couple of hours later, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, again threw cold water on GOP hopes of passing a short-term extension of food and farm programs when they expire Sept. 30.

On the food and farm bill impasse, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said: “I don’t believe that we ought to let the current farm bill expire if we’re unable at this point to pass a replacement.”

Hope for that is fading however; Congress is instead on track to fund food stamps through the continuing resolution.