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.” 

Shared Responsibility

Scholl also acknowledges the need for simplification and some consolidation in working lands conservation programs, but says, “Conservation of our natural resources to meet the long-term needs of our nation is a shared responsibility between farmers and the public. Cuts of 40 percent to these programs would put an unfair burden on farmers. Fiscal restraint and consolidation cannot be used to decimate the working lands programs our nation needs to ensure our farmers can feed ourselves and the world in the long run.”

“While we acknowledge that fiscal restraint is in order during these tough budget times, this level of cuts ignores the fundamental production challenges we face in feeding the projected nine billion people, and the related conservation obligations our nation must address,” Scholl adds.

“U.S. farmers manage nearly half the land in this country,” Scholl says. “As the world population and market pressures mount, farmers will be motivated to intensify production on a decreasing land base. Conservation programs can help ensure that increased production does not lead to negative environmental consequences, or the degradation of the agricultural land base.”

“While the REFRESH farm bill proposal contains some very good ideas that we support, the damaging changes to conservation policy outweigh the benefits, so we cannot support the bill at this time,” Scholl concluded.