The REFRESH Act introduced by Senator Dick Lugarm, R-Ind., and Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., includes good ideas for the agricultural safety net, but takes conservation policy in the wrong direction,” said Jon Scholl, president of American Farmland Trust (AFT).

The REFRESH Act’s safety net proposal draws on the Aggregate Risk and Revenue Management (ARRM) program put forward last week by Lugar and Senators Thune, R-S.D., Brown, D-Ohio, and Durbin, D-Ill. This program would provide a viable safety net for commodity producers that is fiscally responsible and reflects modern agriculture.  “While we would like to see a few minor changes to this proposal that would make it more market-oriented and less expensive, on the whole AARM would take risk management programs in the direction they need to go,” adds Scholl.

Unfortunately, the REFRESH Act’s conservation proposals are much less heartening.  In particular, the bill institutes a radical and unwise conglomeration of the existing conservation easement programs that eliminates many of the positive elements that have been painstakingly developed over several decades.  In particular, the proposal would greatly diminish the role of local land trusts in protecting farm and ranch land, effectively forfeiting their contribution to the existing $1.80 match for every federal dollar that goes into these cost-share programs. 

This blow to land preservation efforts would come at a bad time.  From 1982-2007, each of the 48 contiguous states lost agricultural land (crop, Conservation Reserve Program, pasture and range land) to development. “More than 23 million acres of agricultural land were converted to developed land nationwide —an area the size of Sen. Lugar and Rep. Stutzman’s home state of Indiana,” says Scholl.  “While we are not opposed to thoughtful streamlining of conservation programs, and have in fact proposed reducing the easement programs from five to two, this proposal goes too far in eliminating programs needed to insure the resources needed to meet the rapidly growing demands on agriculture.”

In addition, the bill would cut nearly 40 percent of the money dedicated to working lands conservation programs, programs that are implemented on a cost-share basis with farmers who want to implement stewardship measures on their farms. “We are greatly concerned about the magnitude of cuts to conservation programs and the shift away from programs that emphasize working lands,” Scholl adds. “With respect to the conservation challenges facing American agriculture — the need for clean water, healthy soils and other benefits that can be generated on working farm and ranchland — REFRESH goes in the wrong direction.”