Interest in the Farm Bill is usually confined to policy wonks and agribusiness lobbyists, but this year it has generated more buzz than a cowpie in a June paddock.

Despite the stir, most of the public attention has been narrowly focused on only one aspect of the $280 billion policy package: the farm payments paid to corn, soybean, wheat, rice, and cotton producers. Though concerns over the current commodity programs are well-founded, their emphasis has given a negative cast to the Farm Bill debate: we should be against farm subsidies.

But there are also things worth fighting for in the Farm Bill — conservation programs that promote environmental enhancement, sustain family farms, and support rural communities are some of them.

By now, many of us are familiar with some of the arguments against the current commodity payment programs: public health advocates associate the abundance of cheap (subsidized) corn with higher rates of obesity, the Bush administration and other free traders are concerned that the current payment structure will trigger further WTO litigation, and environmentalists are fed up with industrial agriculture’s negative impacts on air, water, and biodiversity.

The current farm payment program certainly needs to be reined in and re-examined. But the debate over the future of farm support — as played out in the media and by some reform groups — has been distilled down to one false choice: we can either maintain the status quo or eliminate farm payments altogether.

Instead of restricting the public conversation to this dichotomy, we must vigorously elevate the innovative ways that farm policy can support family farms and conserve our natural resources, increase access to good food, and encourage new markets. Put another way, good public policy is an important component of fostering a healthy food system.

This week and last, Grist has been featuring a series on food and farming. A great article by Elizabeth Royte explores the monumentally negative impact that intensive row cropping and factory farms have had on drinking water in the Mississippi River basin. How might the Farm Bill encourage farmers’ transition away from the industrial production described by Royte to more sustainable farming practices?

It might come as a surprise that there are several programs in the current Farm Bill that incorporate environmental objectives or encourage land stewardship. The problem is that they receive very little funding compared to the commodity programs. The two conservation provisions described below are just a sample of what we must fight for in the next Farm Bill.

Conservation Security Program

The Conservation Security Program (CSP) was created in the 2002 Farm Bill and is the first serious attempt to reward farmers for providing environmental services on land that they are actively farming or ranching. The idea underlying CSP is that taxpayers’ money should go towards the best farmers — those who increase environmental enhancements through practices like rotational grazing or resource-conserving crop rotations. By rewarding environmental services, CSP also serves as an incentive for other farmers to transition to more sustainable agricultural conservation systems.

Whereas commodity payments encourage overintensive production of a few crops, CSP demonstrates an appreciation for the multiple benefits of agriculture: food and fiber production can be promoted in a way that reinforces the public interest in soil tilth, wildlife habitat, and unpolluted waterways.

Status
Although $9 billion was authorized for CSP for the period 2002-2011, only about $500 million was made available nationwide for enrollments through 2006. That means enrollment in the program has been restricted to a limited number of specific watersheds. Rather than restore the funding cuts to and increase funding levels for the program, the House Farm Bill passed in July cut nearly $5 billion more from CSP and delayed new farmer signups until 2012 — essentially putting the program on ice for four years.

Fortunately, the Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee also happens to be the grandfather of CSP. Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) announced on Wednesday of this week that CSP (renamed the Conservation Stewardship Program) will receive nearly $2 billion in new funding in his Farm Bill proposal. The Senate Agriculture Committee is set to vote on this new version next week.

Take Action
Even if Harkin’s funding level for CSP stays intact through the Senate Agriculture Committee’s markup, it still needs to survive on the Senate floor and through “conference” (when senators and representatives reconcile the differences between their two versions and produce a final bill). Contact your senators and representative and urge them to support Chairman Harkin’s version of CSP.

Sodsaver

If passed, the Sodsaver program would be a new addition to the Farm Bill. Currently, the ‘Sodbuster’ provision of the conservation compliance section of the Farm Bill allows landowners who plow up valuable native prairies and convert the land from pasture for livestock grazing into crop production to still receive commodity payments, disaster payments, and subsidized crop insurance as long as they develop and implement a soil conservation plan. The plan is only required for land that is determined to be highly erodible.

Not surprisingly, a recent study from the GAO suggests that Sodbuster has done very little to protect uncropped grasslands. Sodsaver, on the other hand, would be an extension to existing law and would deny farm commodity programs, crop insurance, disaster, and conservation subsidies on previously uncropped grasslands that are converted to crop production.

Not only would the Sodsaver proposal help reduce overproduction of commodities that result in low prices for farmers, it would decrease soil erosion and protect a valuable ecosystem for a wide variety of plant and animal species. The money saved from Sodsaver could be reinvested in conservation payments to support increased grassland biodiversity.

Status
The House Farm Bill passed in July only includes a partial Sodsaver provision prohibiting crop insurance subsidies for the first four years following grassland conversion, but does not prohibit commodity or conservation payments.

The draft Farm Bill proposal announced by the Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman includes the full Sodsaver provision prohibiting all taxpayer subsidies from going to newly converted grassland.

Take Action
Like CSP, the Sodsaver provision must survive through the Senate Agriculture Committee, the Senate floor debate, and conference. Call your senators and representative and urge them to support Chairman Harkin’s version of Sodsaver.

When Farm Bill reform is only portrayed as a zero-sum game, anyone who advocates for change stands to be labeled as an antifarmer city slicker. This only serves the interests of the Agriculture Committee members who want to defend the status quo.

In contrast, real reform may stand a better chance if we throw our weight (and our words) behind the kinds of policies that support family farmers and the public good.