By Shawn Perich
Craig Cox minces no words when he describes the conservation aspects of the newly passed Farm Bill.
It’s a bad bill,” he says. “Bad for conservation and bad for sustainable agriculture.”
From a conservation perspective, Cox, director of the Environmental Working Group’s Midwest Office in Ames, Iowa, says the new bill is the worst of the five Farm Bills he’s been involved with during his professional career.
“Beginning with the 1985 Farm Bill (when the Conservation Reserve Program began) through at least the 90s, conservation was making progress,” he says. “Now the conservation community is on the defensive and at best treading water.”
To be sure, he says, conservationists won some hard-fought battles, especially linking conservation compliance with crop insurance subsidies. Beginning in 1985, famers were required to take steps to control erosion and prevent wetland drainage to be eligible for crop insurance subsidies, which cover an average of 62 to 65 percent of a grower’s premiums. Congress decoupled compliance from insurance subsidies in 1996 and conservationists have fought ever since to restore it.
Now, the devil is in the details. Cox says conservationists must push hard to get the USDA to ramp up noncompliance enforcement, which all evidence suggests has been lax. Even if enforcement improves, the Farm Bill does nothing to reform the existing crop insurance program. Farmers continue to have incentives to plow marginal land with taxpayers covering up to 90 percent of the risk with a per-acre guarantee of revenue.
“Making it worse is a whole fleet of new subsidies layered on crop insurance,” Cox says. “So taxpayers are now subsidizing even more of the risk for farmers, which are where all of the problems come in.”
The problems are familiar to anyone who hunts pheasants, ducks or deer on the prairies of the Upper Midwest. The last decade has seen a rapid acceleration of corn and soybean production, which has displaced other crops and encouraged farmers to plow and drain marginal lands. The process has been fueled from both directions with crop insurance subsidies to minimize the risk of breaking ground and with ethanol subsidies to create additional demand for corn. The result has been a dramatic loss of private lands wildlife habitat–grasslands and wetlands–in Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas.
In addition to conservation compliance, the new Farm Bill contains some provisions that may slow, but won’t stop, habitat loss. Although there remains intense pressure to drain wetlands in the prairie pothole region, the Swampbuster Program remains in place to discourage drainage. Cox says one bright spot for sportsmen in the Upper Midwest is the new Sodsaver provision, which discourages breaking previously unplowed grassland. Doing so causes a farmer to lose one half of crop insurance subsidies for four years. Of course, the effectiveness of Sodsaver rests on the government’s ability to enforce it.
Even if Swampbuster and Sodsaver perform as intended, habitat loss will continue. The reason is an ongoing reduction in the Conservation Reserve Program. Since it began in 1985, CRP has paid farmers not to farm marginal land, thus creating millions of acres of grassland habitat and a consequent abundance of wildlife. Two generations of Upper Midwest hunters enjoyed good to excellent hunting for pheasants, ducks, deer and other game largely due to the habitat contribution of CRP.
In recent years, high commodity prices have encouraged farmers to take land out of CRP and return it to row crops, causing the loss of millions of acres of habitat. As a result, pheasant populations crashed in Iowa and were noticeably reduced in portions of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Whitetail deer numbers have dropped in North Dakota and elsewhere. Biologists warn continental waterfowl populations, long bolstered by CRP grasslands across the prairie pothole region, may soon begin to decline.
Under the new Farm Bill, CRP is reduced to 24 million acres, down about 2 million acres from current levels. At its height, over 30 million acres were enrolled in CRP, much of the lands located in the Upper Midwest. As CRP acreage declines, habitat losses in our region will continue. With less habitat, there will be less wildlife.
Cox says the Farm Bill’s lower CRP level is a deficit reduction strategy. Conservation absorbed an inordinate amount of the Farm Bill’s deficit reduction measures, because there were few savings on the commodities side. The bill transitions away from the direct payment subsidies that once defined the nation’s farm program in favor of crop insurance. While politicians pitched crop insurance as a way to save on subsidies, Cox says in reality, 80 percent of the savings from direct payments were used to pay for new subsidies in the 2014 Farm Bill.
“In order to hit their deficit reduction targets, Congress cut CRP and conservation funding,” Cox says.
So what does all of this mean for hunters? The bottom line is that hunting quality across the pheasant range and in the prairie pothole region will continue to diminish, because the Farm Bill’s conservation provisions slow, but don’t stop habitat loss. This is a very different situation than the “good old days” of the late 80s, 90s and early 2000s, when there were millions more acres of CRP on the landscape.
Five years from now, avid wing-shooters will find good hunting, particularly in the Dakotas, but there will be fewer places with sufficient habitat for abundant bird populations. Minnesota will have passable hunting for pheasants and ducks, due in part to permanent habitat provided by public hunting areas and private conservation easements. Iowa, which largely lacks these habitat options, may be a lost cause. So bird hunting will still exist, there will just be less of it and it won’t be as good as it used to be. White-tailed deer abundance may diminish, too.
If it is any consolation to hunters, sportsmen’s groups says the conservation provisions of the Farm Bill are as good as we could expect to get in the current political climate. Remember that the next time you see a politician wearing a camo hat and saying they’ve got your back.