American Farmland Trust (AFT) has welcomed the 2012 farm bill draft unveiled by the Senate Agriculture Committee.

AFT President Jon Scholl commended Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, ranking member, for their efforts to move the farm bill forward. 

“It’s great to see (them) working together on a bipartisan basis to advance this farm bill process,” said Scholl. “Crafting a viable and effective farm bill will only get harder if Congress kicks the can down the road and the budget noose tightens further.”

AFT is one of more than 60 groups that urged Congress earlier this year to produce a timely farm bill.

“We cannot afford to delay this crucial legislation when our farmers and ranchers face continued pressure to produce food, fiber and fuel while also maintaining healthy soils, protecting water quality and providing wildlife habitat,” Scholl continued. “Rapidly rising world food demand creates incredible economic opportunity for agriculture, but also makes it even more imperative for us to address the conservation challenges we face here at home.”

In light of these challenges, funding for the Conservation Title is critical.

“I applaud the Senate Agriculture Committee for providing robust funding for the conservation title,” said Scholl. “While all cuts are painful, and in any other situation we would be asking for more funding, given the budget reality we believe this is a fair deal.”

The Committee draft limits the cuts to Conservation Title funding to $6 billion over ten years.

AFT applauds the committee’s commitment to support farm and ranch land protection through the new Agricultural Land Easement option under the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

This tool will continue the legacy of the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program because it embodies core principles that have been critical to that program’s success. First, it will protect working lands and keep them in agricultural use. Second, only permanent easements will be offered. Third, the easements will continue to work through partnerships that provide flexibility at the local level and leverage state and local funds.

Scholl said, “Our nation has a critical need to protect farm and ranch land. We lost acreage the size of Indiana between 1982 and 2007, yet we are expected to produce more food than ever before. Permanent conservation easements protect agricultural land from development, safeguard local agricultural economies and help farmers and ranchers transition their land to the next generation.

“Another important accomplishment in this bill is the creation of the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program. This program is a huge leap forward in how conservation is delivered, because it gives local producers and conservationists a tool to come together to address natural resource concerns. It is also competitive and merit-based, which means that the resources will go where they can do the most good.”

AFT has had great success working with a precursor to this program to address nitrogen losses in the Upper Salt Fork Watershed in Champaign County, Ill. This project has significantly increased adoption of innovative techniques to retain nitrogen fertilizer on farmland. Local farmers and conservationists alike have praised the partnership-based project structure. 

Scholl did note that some issues remain to be worked out as the farm bill progresses. "No bill is perfect right out of the gates,” he said. “We will continue to look for any opportunity to bring funding for Agricultural Land Easements back toward the levels of the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program baseline, especially in the later years that the bill impacts. In addition, though conservation compliance remains in effect through the new commodity support program, we will continue to urge that it be reattached to the crop insurance premium support.”