Lincoln -- On April 30, 2018, a dust storm swept across central Nebraska. Visibility was so bad that traffic on Interstate 80 was halted after a twenty-nine vehicle pile-up that caused one fatality. The source of the dust? Blowing farm fields, inadequately protected by conservation measures.
On May 18, Nebraska Republican Congressman Don Bacon, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, voted for a farm bill that kills the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the nation's largest conservation program for working farms. Nebraska, moreover, has been the nation's largest beneficiary of CSP in terms of acres covered, almost eight hundred thousand in 2017. But clearly not enough.
This could not have been an easy vote for Don Bacon, hurting Nebraska so hard, assuming he understood what he was voting on.
Historically, farm bills have been developed on a bipartisan basis with the needs of different parts of the country taken into account. This one, however, was a partisan product of the Republican leadership, for which conservation is a low priority. Congress being what it is these days, Don Bacon saw no option but to put partisanship above soil health. Let the fields blow.
Fortunately, the bill did not pass. It is widely seen as the worst farm bill in memory. Conservative organizations such as the Cato Institute, the Club for Growth, and Heritage Action oppose it. So do many farmer-led organizations. Conservation and natural resource groups are dead set against it to the point of outrage.
Unfortunately, Speaker Paul Ryan will try to bring the bill up again, to force it through the House on a party-line vote. The Republican leadership wants political talking points about putting more work requirements on food stamp (SNAP) recipients, sensing (perhaps correctly) that it can take rural America voters for granted and need not address rural America's needs. The major media seem happy to play along, as there has been scant coverage of anything that is actually in the farm bill beyond the SNAP issue.
Apologists for the bill say some of the savings from killing CSP will be redirected to other conservation programs, such as EQIP, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. This is good if you want taxpayer dollars moved from land stewardship to helping feedlots and huge chicken farms expand across the countryside, as is now happening around Fremont. Maybe that's the future Don Bacon sees for the remaining rural areas of Douglas County.
Adding insult to injury, the bill does not modernize and reform crop insurance as it should, to encourage farmers to plant cover crops to protect the soil. Instead, it wastes $3.4 billion (over ten years) in unnecessary subsidies (according to CBO scoring) and even retreats from the crop insurance reforms that were enacted in the 2014 Farm Bill. Think what $3.4 billion could have done for soil conservation.
Cogent reviews of the House farm bill and its conservation issues have been written by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Rural Advancement Foundation International.
For a broader look, check out Farm and Food File; if you can stand to be really appalled about what is happening to the Great Plains, read "Kansas Is Dying."
Because this is not a partisan blog, I should note that Democrats are hardly being helpful in bringing the farm bill's shortcomings to public attention. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi visited an Iowa farm on May 7 and said nothing about how the troubling provisions in the bill are hurting rural America. Although Democrats have pointed out the bill's lamentable attempt to end bipartisan farm bill cooperation over food stamp issues, at the national level they have been silent as to what they stand for in the rest of the bill, if anything.
It remains a mystery as to how Democrats think they can win elections in rural America by ignoring it. Rural voters may develop suspicions about whether the Don Bacons of the world are watching out for their interests (clearly not), but they will ask Democrats what they are for, and Democrats need to be ready with answers, rather than silence.