Thune and Johnson fear new farm bill will devote too much to environmental protection

State Republican leaders and farmers say crop insurance are their top priority in the bill
Published: Aug. 17, 2022 at 9:15 PM CDT
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MITCHELL, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - The farming leaders of South Dakota and all three members of the U.S. congressional delegation that represents them in Washington, D.C., are lock step in what they think is the important part of the upcoming Federal Farm Bill.

They want as much funding for farmers and ranchers as possible, and especially for crop insurance, a part of the bill intended to provide economic stability for farmers and ranchers, and food security to all people.

“As long as we continue to feed ourselves and keep our agricultural industry fairly strong, no matter what happens in the world, we can feed ourselves and we’ll be OK,” South Dakota Farm Bureau president Scott VanderWal said.

Senators John Thune and Mike Rounds joined Rep. Dusty Johnson on stage for a 90-minute Farm Bill Forum at DakotaFest in Mitchell. Afterward, they were all given “Friends of Farmers” plaques from American Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall for voting with the bureaus’s stance on farming issues at least 70 percent of the time.

The first two of 12 “titles” in the current 2018 bill are “commodities” — the title most affecting farmers’ and ranchers’ bottom line — and “conservation,” which, in part, addresses “environmental concerns.”

Rounds noted that only about 15 percent of the farm bill will go to farmers and ranchers. He described how much more it costs to be a farmer compared to even five years ago, with high input prices, diesel gas costing $5 per gallon, seed prices that have “gone through the roof,” and fertilizer prices being “too high.”

“What (farmers) want to do is manage the risk of putting a lot of money into every single crop,” Rounds said.

In separate interviews with Dakota News Now, the Republican politicians all said they expect they are in for a fight with Democrats over how much money will be appropriated to farming commodities versus conservation and environmental protection. However much goes to conservation, they fear, will be too much.

Johnson said Republicans are “going to be on defense” and that a lot of Democrats are “trying to turn the Farm Bill into an environmental bill.”

“We cannot allow the left to hijack the Farm Bill,” Johnson said. “That’s going to make it incumbent on farm state Democrats and Republicans to work together to send the message that food security is national security, and the Farm Bill plays an incredible role in that.”

Johnson, Rounds, and Thune all referred to the $27 billion that will go toward environmental conservation as part of the recently-passed $468 billion Inflation Reduction Act, which Thune said was “very ineptly and inappropriately named.”

“We don’t really know where it’s going, except, we assume, with the Democrats putting it in there, that it’s going to go into the climate agenda they have.”

The Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund will support competitive grants to national and local “green banks,” which will provide low-cost financing for clean energy infrastructure projects intended to reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of air pollution.

The current Farm Bill, passed in 2018, will expire on September 30, 2023. The new version is expected to be voted upon after 2022 election.

If Republicans take over the majority of either chamber, Thune, the current Senate Minority Whip, said his party will “take whatever the authorization and allocations and funds are available and put it into conservation programs that make sense, whether they are working land projects or set-aside projects, and not some crazy stuff that (Democrats) might spend it on.

“Who knows? They could put it into electric vehicles. I just know right now that’s their top priority. Their entire energy policy is doing everything toward EV’s.”

Johnson said farmers and ranchers are already “environmental heroes” who, “through their own decisions and through voluntary and flexible programs” are holding more carbon in the ground than ever before.

“They are 287 percent more productive today than just a lifetime ago,” Johnson said. “That has a huge impact on the stewardship of the land.”

VanderWal, South Dakota’s Farm Bureau president is a corn and soybean farmer and cattle rancher near Volga.

“We make our living off the land,” VanderWal said. “That’s our factory, so we want to take care of our own natural resources, our own soil.

”We want to keep that topsoil where we can use it. We want to protect the water because we drink the water that’s under the ground. Most farmhouses have wells, and so if we all that to become polluted, our families are going to suffer. Air quality and things like that are important to us.”

Asked to give an example where the federal government is spending too much money on environmental protection in farming, VanderWal said too much emphasis has been put on CRP, or the Conservation Reserve Program, which is administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA).

In exchange for a yearly rental payment, farmers enrolled in the program agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality.

VanderWal said the rental rates for CRP’s are sometimes too high, to the point they compete with young farmers and ranchers.

“A couple years ago, there was some CRP coming out, and a young farmer was trying to rent a cow herd and trying to build a herd,” VanderWal said. “And he lost out to the government, to the ability to rent that. So, that’s not fair.”

Cases like this, VanderWal said, prevent young farmers from getting started and make it hard for continuing generations of farmers to “feet the public.”

VanderWal told the politicians that CRP needs to go back to its original intent — to protect marginal lands.

“If they’re highly erodible, that kind of thing” VanderWal said, “then yes, it’s appropriate to put that in there. Otherwise, let’s give working lands conservation, where we can use it and make sure we’re taken care of at the same time.”

While commodities and conservation were the two biggest discussion topics of the farm bill, 80 percent of its spending usually goes to “nutrition.” That part of the farm bill was first created by the Food Stamp Act of 1964 and governs programs utilized by people who cannot afford to buy food in times of difficulty.

“If we keep the nutrition program in the farm bill,” Rounds said, “that also means the folks in urban areas have interest in seeing the farm bill passed. There’s only 18 members of the U.S. Senate that come from states where cows outnumber people. So, you have to have support from other groups in order to get a farm bill passed in the U.S. Senate, and you do that by making sure you have a good nutrition bill, the “SNAP” (formerly called food stamps) program and so forth, and a good school lunch program, and also a conservation prgoram so that organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever are also supporting the Farm Bill.

“And we can do it across bipartisan lines.”

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