Testimony of the
Izaak Walton League of America
Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry Field Hearing
Thursday, August 25, 2011
The Izaak Walton League of America is a private, non-profit conservation organization
that for more than 89 years has supported strong federal conservation policies on private
lands, especially agricultural lands. Our members live, work and recreate in rural
communities. We have a decades-long record of supporting farm families and
collaborative efforts to achieve conservation that sustains agriculture, rural economies,
habitat, and all natural resources.
I. Conservation’s Success Story
The federal Farm Bill’s Title II programs constitute a success story as great as any that
government has achieved. These voluntary efforts, while continually over-subscribed
and repeatedly reduced in annual appropriations cycles, have improved agricultural
production and natural resources in our nation. Consider where we would be if U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs did not exist:
► 450 million tons of topsoil lost every year.
► 170,000 miles of unprotected streams.
► 48 million more tons of carbon dioxide.
► 40 million fewer acres of wildlife habitat.
► 2.2 million fewer ducks.
The commitment to these programs and their proven success can not waiver in the face of
the large challenges that face Farm Bill re-authorization. We urge Congress and the
Administration to enact a Conservation Title in the 2012 Farm Bill that provides the
technical assistance, cost share, and financial incentives necessary to ensure the long term
productivity and stewardship of agricultural lands.
In addition, we recognize that agricultural land is an increasingly expensive investment
that results in a corresponding reduction in the buying-power of conservation dollars.
Voluntary USDA conservation programs provide annual rental payments or purchase
easements in competition with other uses for those lands. In our current financial
environment, these programs risk acquiring less acreage for more money, and face the
further threat of deficit-driven reductions to future funding for the already extraordinarily
backlogged voluntary programs.
Further, conversion of our remaining native landscapes to crop production is an
especially costly activity, as it brings additional disaster prone farmland into cultivation
and creates taxpayer liability for the many subsidies associated with crop production on
marginal land, including reclaiming marginal land. USDA has reported that over a recent
40-year period, an average of 1.8 million acres per year of cropland and the same area of
pastureland have been converted either into or out of the agriculture base. At the same
time, a combined total of 1.5 million acres per year has moved into or out of forestry. In
a climate of mounting federal debt, it is critical that we adopt Farm Bill policy that
protects key natural resources, does not work at cross-purposes, and will actually save
Three conditions have converged as Farm Bill re-authorization begins. 1) Budgetary
conditions make seeking major new funding for conservation difficult. 2) At the same
time, a pattern of consistently high prices for program crops means traditional price-floor
and target-price based Farm Bill subsidies are seldom being issued. And 3) subsidized
federal crop insurance policies based on crop revenue have become the primary way
Farm Bill dollars are being transferred to producers. Given these conditions, the 2012
Farm Bill process must recognize and re-prioritize the existing and logical covenant
between taxpayers and producers represented by the conservation compliance regimen.
II. The Conservation Compliance Covenant
The compliance regimen was established in the 1985 Farm Bill and consists of Wetlands
Conservation (WC) or “Swampbuster,” and Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC).
HELC technically consists of two elements, “Sodbuster” which applies a soil
conservation plan requirement to HEL that is broken for production, and HEL
conservation compliance which requires a soil conservation plan on all HEL already in
production. Failure to meet compliance requirements results in the withholding of USDA
benefits that otherwise would be paid to a producer.
Simply put, Conservation Compliance is a means for ensuring that where public money is
voluntarily accepted, the public’s interests are protected by requiring basic levels of
protections for soil, water, and wetlands.
Penalties for not complying apply to virtually all USDA payments, loans, or other
benefits, including those programs administered by FSA (Title I, CRP) and NRCS (Title
II conservation programs). According to USDA’s Economic Research Service,
compliance succeeds in protecting marginal land and the ecological services provided by
wetlands. Without compliance requirements, 7 to 14 million acres of highly erodible
land and 1.5 to 3.3 million acres of wetlands that are not currently being farmed could be
placed into production. Furthermore, prioritizing existing Compliance provisions
requires no additional Farm Bill investment and in fact can only result in saving federal
There is, however, one major exception among USDA payments that are subject to
Conservation Compliance. Federal Crop Insurance programs administered by USDA’s
Risk Management Agency (RMA) are entirely exempt. When WC and HELC were
originally introduced in the 1985 Farm Bill, crop insurance subsidies were included.
However, in the 1996 “freedom to farm” bill, crop insurance subsidies were specifically
and solely exempted from compliance requirements.
III. Conservation Compliance and Crop Insurance
The next Farm Bill is certain to see an emphasis on risk management (crop/revenue
insurance) amid intense budget-trimming pressure.
Subsidized crop insurance is a logical and effective support system for farmers that has
exploded in popularity in the last decade. In testimony before a House Subcommittee
this year, USDA Risk Management Agency Administrator Bill Murphy noted that,
“fewer than 100 million acres of farmland were insured under the program in 1994.
Today, over 250 million acres of farm and ranch lands are covered by Federal crop
insurance, for an overall participation rate exceeding 80 percent for the major crops.”i
Crop Insurance subsidies presently average at least 61 percent of the total premium cost,ii
and are often much higher. As Administrator Murphy further testified, “Today, over 90
percent of all policyholders purchase buy-up levels of coverage. Of note is the
significant level of participation by specialty crop producers. The overall participation
rate for specialty crop producers is about 75 percent, which is fairly comparable to the 83
percent participation rate for the major program crops.”
Accompanying the rapid expansion of crop insurance, growing by more than four times
in eight years, there has been a paradigm shift where most policies now insure price via
revenue insurance policies. With the majority of crop insurance payouts functioning
independently of crop failure or weather disasters, and instead are based on insuring a
strong price, producers can customarily average returns far greater than the premiums
they invest year-in and year-out. The popularity of revenue insurance and resulting large
indemnity payments, is evidence that producers have done the math and know what
rewards them best. For the first time ever, the budget picture for the next Farm Bill
shows crop insurance exceeding the totals for either commodity or conservation
spending.iii The result is that subsidized insurance can provide an inherent incentive for
risky production, which makes compliance mechanisms a necessity for all cropinsurance/
The Federal Crop Insurance program is not in and of itself bad policy, and we in fact
believe it may best serve as the model for a federal “safety-net” that meets the needs and
demands of modern agriculture. But any Farm Bill policy that reduces risk must be
accompanied by policies that protect against reckless and destructive reactions to the
resulting artificially low-risk conditions for program participants. Because higher crop
prices mean higher levels at which a crop must be insured, removing the exemption from
compliance for crop insurance would produce a strong incentive to protect soil and water
resources—or at the very least place a backstop against taxpayer-funded exploitation of
high risk areas and wetlands.
The League will work with Congress to support the conservation compliance approach as
a means to achieve conservation in a cost-effective and targeted way that can be refined
to match prevailing conditions in the agricultural sector. We urge Congress to:
a). Re-establish compliance requirements for federal crop insurance benefits so
that all existing or new crop and revenue insurance or other risk management
programs must be subject to all existing or new conservation compliance
provisions. This is critical considering the high level of interestiv in making
insurance mechanisms a more integral and primary component of the federal farm
“safety net,” and associated proposals to reform insurance mechanisms to increase
their use among crops and regions of the country where use of insurance is not
b). Enact a nationwide “Sodsaver” provision to remove incentives to convert
marginal lands by requiring non-cropland not previously associated with any
production records maintained by USDA that is converted for planting an annual
crop will not be eligible for all existing or new crop and revenue insurance or
other risk management programs and disaster benefits.
c). Revise all soil conservation plans approved, applied, and maintained before
July 3, 1996 to at minimum meet current standards on highly erodible cropland.
Additionally, Congress should consider the recommendation of soil conservation
professionals to require all land in production, both HEL and non-HEL, to have a
soil conservation plan to be eligible for any USDA benefits.v This would strongly
encourage producers to create and follow conservation plans.
On Behalf of the Izaak Walton League of America, thank you for the opportunity to
submit this written testimony
Folks there is 2trillion expected to be cut soon and most of it will come at the expense of some key Crop Insurance programs that require conservation compliance. However as you can see in the above report many can see the writting on the wall and are shifting thier federal insurance interest into the Federal Crop Insurance program that excludes Conservation compliance rules / guidelines. The point I am trying to make here is that if we loose some of these other insurance programs where conservation compliance is mandatory and are left with the only insurance program that excluded conservation compliance, we are screwed as sportsmen and our resources be it pheasants ducks or whatever are screwed to. My point that I have often made on the issue of taking public tax payer dollars is simple. If you take a dime of our tax money we want something in return ( Conservation Compliance rules to apply point period.)