Another week without a new farm bill provides another chance for the Obama administration to highlight an important aspect of the legislation. Tuesday’s focus: conservation programs and gains that will be lost without a deal by the conference committee.

With the conferees hung up on regional commodity title differences and a massive gulf between Senate and House food stamp funding numbers, the chances of a new farm before year’s end are dimming. Despite the Senate being out of session this week, the main conference players – including Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee – are meeting Wednesday to again try and iron out key differences.

During a Tuesday press conference jointly held by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Dale Hall, CEO of Ducks Unlimited, conservation was front and center. “One of every 12 jobs is connected to agriculture and that’s why Congress must complete its work on a new (farm bill),” said Vilsack. “An important component of that is a continued commitment to conservation.

“Since 2009, we have enrolled nearly 500,000 producers across the United States now engaged 350 million acres of conservation activity. These conservation programs have helped the USDA to launch a large-scale watershed effort which has helped to make a historic investment in the Everglades and helped promote better water quality along the Upper Mississippi River Basin.”

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Other highlights pointed out by the USDA:

  • More than 844,000 acres were enrolled since 2010 under the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative to help treat land along the Mississippi River.
  • More than 275,000 acres were enrolled since 2011 under the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, helping helps farmers and ranchers in the central United States conserve water.
  • More than 246,000 acres were enrolled since 2010 under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, working with producers to protect water quality and combat invasive species. America's Great Lakes hold 21 percent of the world's surface fresh water.
  • The USDA Everglades Initiative has enrolled nearly 215,000 acres since 2010, improving water quality and helping to restore fish and wildlife habitat in this unique coastal region.

Check state-by-state efforts under selected NRCS and FSA conservation programs here.

With $640 billion spent by Americans on outdoor activities annually, conservation advocates swing a big stick.

Hall said Ducks Unlimited and partners are pushing for a full five-year farm bill. “We’re a bit concerned about a kick-the-can-down-the-road one year extension (of the 2008 farm bill), which would have the conservation provisions – but at extreme risk. We’re all working together to make sure there’s a five-year bill so there’s some certainty for the landowners.”

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Hall pointed out that 60 percent of all the landmass of the United States is in private hands, most in agriculture. “So, if we’re able to do anything as partners out on the ground with these wonderful conservation stewards – farmers and ranchers – we (must) have a way for them to feel some certainty and make plans to be ready for the future.”

Essential for a new farm bill, said Hall, “is recoupling the crop insurance program with conservation provisions. We strongly support having farmers and ranchers get crop subsidies and crop insurance at very reasonable rates because they’re providing real benefits back to us.” In return, DU – which also backs the Sodsaver program and a 10 percent cut to conservation funding -- wants the aforementioned coupling.

Hurdles, questions

Vilsack was queried on a Senate provision that would reduce crop insurance premiums for the wealthiest farmers. Vilsack said President Obama’s budget made it clear that “there need to be limits on the help and assistance provided. Whether it’s crop insurance or another program that complements and supports crop insurance, it’s really designed to provide financial assistance when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate or when, for whatever reason, the markets turn and it’s difficult for producers … to be able to survive a difficult year.”

Those lawmakers unable to come up with a farm bill deal, said Vilsack, “have been holding rural America at bay, have been holding farmers, sportsmen, anglers and hunters at bay for far too long.”

Without passage of a new farm bill or extension how quickly might 1949 law – and the prospect of $8-per-gallon milk -- kick in?

Vilsack wouldn’t provide a specific date but did say USDA staff “is working on how we would go about implementing the provisions of permanent law. Our hope and belief is that isn’t necessary. Our hope and belief is it won’t have to occur if Congress finishes its work. But we will be prepared if Congress fails to act to do what the law requires. We’ll do it in an expeditious way.”

What about worries that a proposal to switch the basis for subsidy payments to planted acres could set up U.S. agriculture for WTO challenges?

As he has in recent months, Vilsack brought up the need for a new farm bill to avoid further problems with the WTO case on U.S. cotton brought by Brazil. “I think it’s incumbent on Congress – and I’m sure people are sensitive to this – not to create another opportunity for the WTO to criticize the way in which we’re supporting producers and reducing the risk associated with farming.

“We’re obviously encouraging (lawmakers) to find that compromise that allows them to respond to the needs of all different types of commodities. … There needs to be a blend, a balance. There also needs to be an awareness that we’re engaged in a global economic activity and are abiding by the rules if we want others to abide by them.”

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Asked if the farm bill negotiations would be smoother if taken from conferees and placed in the hands of the White House and Congressional leadership, Vilsack backed those leading the farm bill conference. They “are doing a good job. They’re working hard and making the effort. They just simply have to be committed, as I believe they are, to getting it done, and quickly.

“At the end of the day, we don’t want to make the perfect be the enemy of the good.”