A coalition of nearly four-dozen conservation, environmental, crop insurance and other agricultural organizations have come to an agreement that link conservation efforts to crop insurance.

The agreement comes as the U.S. House and Senate ag committees will begin marking up their versions of a new, $500 billion farm law next week. 

The bills are expected to boost crop support rates, expand the crop insurance program, reduce the scope of land-idling programs and cut spending on food aid to the poor.

The American Farm Bureau Federation said on its web site that it "joined forces with conservation, environmental, crop insurance and other agricultural organizations to create a plan that would link conservation efforts to crop insurance."

On the group's web site, AFBF farm program specialist Mary Kay Thatcher explains why in an interview with AFBF’s Johnna Miller:

Miller: Thirty-two different agriculture, environmental and crop insurance groups have teamed up to create a solution to some controversial proposals for the new farm bill. Those proposals deal with crop insurance, which many expect to become the primary safety net for the nation’s farmers.
Thatcher: It’s a pretty big deal. I think it’s been at least 25 years since agriculture and the environmental/conservation community have come together on such a big issue. We came together because the provisions that had been put in the Senate bill last year were just awful and would’ve been really unworkable.
Miller: American Farm Bureau farm policy specialist Mary Kay Thatcher says the problem was with the idea of means testing and payment limits for the crop insurance program.
Thatcher: We’ve come up with what we think is a very workable alternative which would not limit eligibility and which would have crop insurance tied to making sure you weren’t breaking up highly erodible land or plowing up wetlands. But if you did have an accident and something happened, maybe you drained a ditch a little bit deeper than you should have, you would have two years to mitigate that problem.
Miller: So if farmers and ranchers use good conservation practices, they’re eligible for the crop insurance program. Thatcher says the proposal would not use any means testing for a good reason, because larger farmers are often more likely to withstand a disaster or a bad year.
Thatcher: In general if you means test and you lop off the larger farmers, often times they’re the least risky farmers. So if you take the least risky out of an insurance pool, you have more risky people remaining and those risky people who were remaining are going to pay a higher premium because you lost the least risky people. We don’t want to do that. We want to keep as many people as possible eligible for crop insurance and make it as workable a risk management program as we can.
Miller: The coalition hopes its plan will be part of the discussion when the Senate Agriculture Committee starts debate on the new farm bill next week. Johnna Miller, Washington.

Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, has said the Senate bill would cut farm bill outlays by $23 billion over 10 years. The House bill is expected to aim for savings of $35 billion over a decade.

Passage of the farm bill is seven months overdue and counting, after an election-year stalemate in the House prevented passage of a bill last autumn.

Tea Party-influenced lawmakers in 2012 wanted to generate bigger cuts in spending, while Democrats said the House bill cut food stamps too much.

Stabenow's proposal would shave $4 billion from food stamps, compared with the $20 billion that House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, has targeted.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand organized a letter, signed by 32 other senators, to cut crop insurance subsidies and avert any food stamp cuts.

Farm lobbyists said Stabenow was expected to propose higher "target" prices for grains and oilseeds, growing chiefly in the Midwest, to satisfy objections from Southern rice and peanut growers. The bill also would shield growers from fluctuations in crop revenue, an approach backed by corn and soybean growers.

Environmentalists say farmers should be required to practice soil conservation to qualify for federally subsidized crop insurance, now the largest part of the farm safety net. Growers collected a record $17 billion in payments for losses caused by the severe 2012 drought.

That idea gained traction this week. Farm groups said they would accept the linkage of insurance and so-called conservation compliance if environmentalists drop attempts to make the wealthiest farmers pay more for coverage. The government pays 62 cents of each $1 in insurance premiums.

Lawmakers began work on the farm bill three years ago. Farm bills are broad-spectrum legislation that cover crop subsidies, agricultural research, food stamps, farm exports, global food aid, rural economic development and biofuel development.

National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson issued the following statement regarding the release of the initial draft of the 2013 Farm Bill by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry:
“NFU is encouraged that the initial draft of the farm bill has been circulated to members of the Senate Agriculture Committee in advance of the committee markup next week.
“We are pleased to see that target price protection was added to the bill. However, in order to be substantial, target prices need to be increased and balanced in a meaningful way. We urge the inclusion of stronger protection against long-term price collapse for all commodities in all regions. It is also promising that some important programs left out of the one-year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill, like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, have been reauthorized and funded.
“Crop insurance remains a strong part of the safety net to help producers survive difficult times. In the bipartisan, collaborative style typical of the agriculture community, a compromise was reached to link conservation compliance requirements to crop insurance, which was  strongly supported across the industry.
“In the mark, the Conservation Reserve Program acreage cap is gradually reduced from 30 million acres to 25 million acres due to budget constraints, and the conservation title remains essentially the same from last year’s Senate farm bill.
“NFU is very pleased to see a strong energy title that includes $800 million in mandatory funding for programs such as the Rural Energy for America Program, Biomass Crop Assistance Program, Biobased Markets Program and Biorefinery Assistance Program.
“Following conversations this morning with Chairman Lucas, we expect the House Committee on Agriculture to follow suit very soon and are pleased to see movement in both chambers because Sept. 30, 2013, is rapidly approaching.