It’s that time of year again. Another twelve months have gone by, and Crazy Uncle Frank once again brought his friend Captain Morgan with him to Christmas dinner, hidden in his jacket pocket. After a few surreptitiously spiked egg nogs, Frank gets a little mean and starts talking smack about his favorite whipping boy, conservation compliance.
First, a little primer on conservation compliance. According to USDA (1), The 1985 Farm Bill “requires producers participating in most programs administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to abide by certain conditions on any land owned or farmed that is highly erodible or that is considered a wetland.” Of course, one of those programs is taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance. On average, federal taxpayers pay 62% of the cost of farmers’ crop insurance premiums. Again, on average, for every $1 a farmer spends on crop insurance, he/she gets back $2.23 (2). I know, right? It’s a sweet, sweet deal. Sweeter than Grandma’s pumpkin pie, but at the same time, smellier than the boars in Grandpa’s sty. And bear in mind that this insurance doesn’t just insure the crop, it can also insure the amount of money the farmer can make from the crop. Trust me I know, it’s hard to wrap your head around it.
But back to conservation compliance. USDA also has this to say about it: “To be in compliance with the highly erodible land conservation and wetland conservation provisions, producers must agree, by certifying on Form AD-1026, that they will not:
• Produce an agricultural commodity on highly erodible land without a conservation system;
• Plant an agricultural commodity on a converted wetland;
• Convert a wetland to make possible the production of an agricultural commodity.”
Now the unwashed might think the requirements listed above are a VERY small ask, considering that a farmer is getting a 123% ROI. A very small ask. But in its defense, Conservation Compliance has indeed delivered some measurable environmental outcomes for both the farmer and the public, so the taxpayer contribution to the crop insurance subsidy hasn’t exactly been urinated into the breeze. Although there are a lot of questions about USDA enforcement of the rules, these outcomes have been documented in the scientific literature. For example, Iowa State University researcher J. Arbuckle had this to say in a 2013 paper published in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation (3): “Conservation Compliance, which since its inception in 1985, has led to substantial reductions in soil erosion by linking eligibility for some Farm Bill programs to erosion control on highly erodible land.” Between 1985 and 1997, reductions in soil erosion attributable to the law totaled 300 million tons per year on average (4). And soil erosion on highly erodible land was reduced 40% (5). I know, I know, you hear people say regulation for agriculture won’t work. To quote Yogi Berra, whooda thunk it.
Good ol’ Crazy Uncle Frank sells insurance. In fact, he bills himself as the #1 Ag insurer (6) and his stable of agents “know how to tailor a protection program to help manage your farm or ranch’s everyday risk.” And after a few Captains, Frank loosens up and tells the fam that money is green whether or not it comes from ‘conservation’ farmers or just the regular kind. He wants to sell insurance to them all. And bear in mind that the taxpayer subsidy for crop insurance is also a de facto subsidy for the companies that sell the insurance products, to the tune of $1.5 billion per year (7). How else could Frank afford that bow-topped Lexus for Aunt Mildred parked in their driveway on Christmas morning?
Back in 2012, Uncle Frank was a part of an industry contingent that said this (8): “refraining from attaching conservation compliance to crop insurance is critical to maintain a workable crop insurance program.” I guess he and his pals were wrong then, since the crop insurance program seems to be flying right along with a taxpayer wind beneath its wings and a 123% ROI for the participants. But, Frank was at it again this week because yesterday (12/13/22) he said he does not want conservation tied to crop insurance in the next farm bill (9), which will be debated in Congress next year.
Now this is a little curious considering that Uncle Frank claims to speak for the larger population of farmers and when polled, farmers have almost always been broadly supportive of conservation compliance (5) (I mean, why look an insured horse in the mouth, right?). And get this, farmers on Uncle Frank’s own website extol the virtues of conservation compliance (10 and image above).
I guess for Frank it’s the principle of the matter. If you’re willing to go to all that hard work to drain a wetland or crop a steep slope, then by God the taxpayer ought to be held accountable when things don't pan out.
- Farm Service Agency, US Department of Agriculture, Conservation Compliance. https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/payment-eligibility/conservation_compliance/index
- Taxpayers for Common Sense. Five fast facts about the federal crop insurance program. June 9, 2022.
- Arbuckle, J.G., 2013. Farmer support for extending Conservation Compliance beyond soil erosion: Evidence from Iowa. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 68(2), pp.99-109.
- Claassen, R., Breneman, V.E., Bucholtz, S., Cattaneo, A., Johansson, R.C. and Morehart, M.J., 2004. Environmental compliance in US agricultural policy: past performance and future potential (No. 1473-2016-120702).
- Schnepf, M. and Cox, C. Conservation Compliance, a retrospective and look ahead. Environmental Working Group, 2012. https://www.agri-pulse.com/ext/resources/pdfs/c/o/n/c/e/ConservationCompliance.pdf.
- U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Crop Insurance:Opportunities Exist to Improve Program Delivery and Reduce Costs. July 26, 2017. https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-17-501.
Agripulse. April 20, 2012. Ag groups oppose linking conservation compliance to crop insurance. https://www.agri-pulse.com/articles/1728-ag-groups-oppose-linking-conservation-compliance-to-crop-insurance.
- Dorenkamp, M. Iowa Farm Bureau president does not want crop insurance tied to conservation. Brownfield Agnews, December 13, 2022. https://1430wcmy.com/2022/12/13/iowa-farm-bureau-president-does-not-want-crop-insurance-tied-to-conservation/#.
- Baratta, B. Conservation in Iowa needs flexibility, farmers say. Iowa Farm Bureau, December 8, 2014. https://www.iowafarmbureau.com/Article/Conservation-in-Iowa-needs-flexibility-farmers-say.