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New farm bill shakes up the way we pay for land conservation

Farm in rural Michigan
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The farm bill has about $57 billion for conservation.

Director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition Todd Ambs says a lot of people don't realize the farm bill is where we find the largest source of conservation money from the federal government.

"That’s because there are so many activities that happen on the land that bring us our food, that if done improperly can have a very adverse impact on the soil and also to surrounding waterways," he says.

The bad news for environmentalists: the new farm bill cuts $6 billion from conservation programs over the next decade. But Ambs says there's a lot of restructuring within programs, and he expects that'll mean the money will be spent more efficiently.

The biggest news: the farm bill ends direct payments to farmers.

That’s a huge change. 

Previously, farmers got checks whether they had good years or bad years.

Ryan Finley is with theMichigan Farm Bureau.

“Part of that direct payment agreement was that the farmer signed a document that said I will comply with all conservation practices required for the land I utilize,” says Finley.

Now, that’s tied to crop insurance instead. So, if you sign up for crop insurance, you have to agree to farm a certain way.  Finley says that was a controversial move.

“It goes back and forth; you’re going to find some farmers that say absolutely we should have this. And other farmers are going to say why am I going to be required to do that when they’re not affiliated at all? For Michigan Farm Bureau, from our perspective, it’s part of the bill and we’re going to move forward with it and we’re going to encourage our farmers to comply with the regulation.”

But that big step - getting conservation tied to crop insurance - came down to a standoff between four lawmakers in a room together.

Senator Debbie Stabenow chairs the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee.

“There was a very big fight in the conference committee. But we were able to achieve it by support from a very important new coalition where we had farmer groups, commodity groups that came together with conservation and environmental organizations,” she says.

Stabenow says the farm bill is the best tool we have to protect our land and water because the majority of land in the U.S. is privately owned.  So, she said it made sense to tie conservation agreements to crop insurance, especially since the federal government helps subsidize crop insurance to begin with.

“It is something that we partner in paying for as taxpayers, so I think there’s a public interest and it’s only appropriate to say we’ll have an expectation for best management practices for conservation,” she says.

The new farm bill also creates a regional partnership for the Great Lakes. Stabenow says it’ll provide money for local projects in the region.

“We want to be able to develop even more of a partnership with farmers around Lake Erie, and Saginaw Bay area and on the west side of the state with Lake Michigan or up north.”

She says the program will build on the work of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. There are all kinds of projects in the works to restore wetlands, clean up pollution and fight invasive species.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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