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Farm bill debate pits conservation vs. commodities


The current tug-of-war among lawmakers for farm bill funding “offers a case study” of the long-running tension between conservation and crop subsidies, said Jonathan Coppess, associate professor at the University of Illinois.

This time, the issue is whether to shift up to $18 billion that was earmarked for climate mitigation (in the 2022 climate, healthcare, and tax law) into crop subsidies. Farm groups want higher reference prices, which would make it easier to trigger crop subsidy payments; the climate money has been eyed repeatedly as the way to offset the multibillion-dollar cost. Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow has been at the forefront of protecting “critically needed conservation funding for farmers.”

More than 165,000 producers would be shut out of conservation funding if all of the climate money is diverted to commodity supports, wrote Coppess at the farmdoc daily blog. Applications perennially exceed the funds available in USDA’s cost-sharing conservation programs, so there is a backlog of producers who are waiting for funding. “The key takeaway is … we would expect more valid farm applications for conservation to be funded,” he wrote.

Based on the current division of funds, Coppess created a state-by-state estimate of conservation projects that could be funded with the climate money, from 8,088 in Mississippi to 46 in Alaska. Eight states would receive at least $600 million during the period, ending in 2031, when the money is available. Iowa would receive the most, with $1 billion. The estimates were focused on two conservation programs with most precise data; the climate money was divided among four programs.

Coppess said the estimates on conservation outlays would provide additional perspective to arguments that higher reference prices are needed to offset high costs of production. Using the climate money for conservation projects would benefit a larger number of producers than if the money is devoted to commodities, where spending is reliant on market prices and is less predictable.

“We can be certain that eliminating the [climate] investments will reduce the amount of assistance to farmers in each state for conservation,” wrote Coppess. “Doing so will also send a clear message about actual priorities for agriculture and reinforce signals from history.”

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