The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

November 10, 2012

National ag figure wants conservation provisions in new farm bill

By Kevin Hassler, Associate Editor
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — One of the leaders of a national conservation organization would like to see a new farm bill include a greater emphasis on conservation.

Bill Wenzel, national ag program director of the Izaak Walton League of America, said a new farm bill must “Maintain a commitment to conservation.”

Wenzel spoke by phone. He was supposed to have been in Stillwater last week to attend a preview of the new Ken Burns film “The Dust Bowl,” but could not get a flight to Oklahoma.

Conservation compliance could be greater, he said, as it pertains to the crop insurance program included in the farm bill.

“One of the failures of the crop insurance program,” Wenzel said, “is that it doesn’t require producers to do anything to preserve the land.”

He’d like to see a requirement that before any producer receives a subsidy for crop insurance, he or she “would have to do basic conservation to keep soil on the land.”

That could be done, Wenzel said, without adding to the price tag of the farm bill.

“This is common sense conservation,” he said. “We’re not asking for more money, we’re just asking that producers have a commitment to conservation compliance.”

Passage of the new farm bill has been held up in the U.S. House. The full Senate has passed its version of the farm bill, and the House Agriculture Committee has approved its version, but the legislation has not been brought to a vote of the full House.

As passed by the House Agriculture Committee, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act — the farm bill — consolidates 23 conservation programs into 13.

According to information provided by the committee, since 1985, Congress has addressed natural resource concerns by creating more than 20 conservation programs, some of which are regional initiatives and many of them have overlapping functions or goals.

The conservation section of the bill provides farmers, ranchers, foresters and landowners with voluntary, incentive-based financial and technical assistance for conservation practices.

Under the plan:

• Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) maximum enrollment of CRP is reduced to 25 million acres, allowing enrollment to focus on the most environmentally sensitive lands. Landowners will be able to better manage their enrolled acres with added flexibility for haying and grazing.

• Current funding is maintained for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). EQIP provides cost share incentives to producers to meet or avoid the need for national, state, or local regulation. EQIP will provide additional incentives for wildlife by absorbing the functions of the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP). The program maintains the Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) subprogram to promote new and innovative conservation practices.

• Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) encourages producers to adopt new conservation measures, while maintaining current practices to protect natural resources. Program changes allow more flexibility for local identification of natural resource concerns. Enrollment is limited to 9 million acres per year.

Wenzel said he expects the House to vote on the farm bill before the new Congress is seated after the first of the  year.

Burns’ film, Wenzel said, points to the need for conservation programs, especially given the drought conditions gripping much of the country the past two years.

Because of those conditions, many producers are turning more marginal crop land and native grassland to production in an attempt to make some kind of crop and make some money. That could cause some problems, Wenzel said, without conservation being in the forefront.

“We’re seeing some dramatic and volatile weather,” he said. “I think we have to make sure we make a commitment to conservation, so history doesn’t repeat itself.”

Enid residents remember Dust Bowl of 1930s

According to its website, the Izaak Walton League of America was formed in 1922 “to save outdoor America for future generations.” It is one of the nation’s oldest conservation organizations, with a grassroots network of more than 250 chapters across the country.

It is named for Izaak Walton, a 17th century author of “The Compleat Angler,” a book about fishing.