By Sen. John Thune
Ask any member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, of which I’m a long-time member, and they’d tell you that work on the farm bill never really ends. It doesn’t matter if it’s a farm bill year or not, I’m always listening to farmers’ and ranchers’ ideas about how I can provide assistance so they can run their operations more efficiently, earn a better living, and ultimately pass their farm or ranch on to the next generation.
Today’s sluggish agriculture economy means it’s more important than ever for policymakers in Washington to find new, innovative ways to help present and future generations of farmers and ranchers stay on their land. We can work toward achieving that goal by providing reasonable alternatives to growing crops on land that produces the least, which would make family-run farms more profitable.
After months of collecting feedback from farmers and other agriculture stakeholders, I’ve introduced a new farm bill program that’s intended to protect farmers’ income in these tough economic times. My bill, the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP), is an economic assistance tool that offers several conservation benefits. SHIPP will not compete with or replace the popular Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), but would be a voluntary alternative for farmers who don’t want to tie up their land for long periods of time.
Most farmers are familiar with CRP. It’s a good, common-sense program that provides a long-term benefit to farmers, wildlife, and the environment. It creates a safe and healthy habitat for South Dakota’s pheasant population, which has an exponential impact on the state’s economy. But in order to enroll land in CRP, farmers must be willing to commit to a lengthy contract of up to 15 years. SHIPP, on the other hand, would give farmers the flexibility they need to plant their least productive cropland to a soil-enhancing, low-cost perennial conserving use crop for three, four, or five years. In return, they would receive an annual rental payment and additional crop insurance assistance.
Every farmer knows exactly which portion of his or her land produces the least. Technology, like yield maps, for example, can help many farmers identify their poorest producing land. Other farmers know certain areas of their fields are less productive than others because of consistently excessive wetness, dryness, or other yield-reducing factors.
Under SHIPP, farmers could enroll up to 15 percent of a farm’s least productive acres as long as they were planted or considered planted to a commodity crop for three consecutive years prior to enrollment. Once enrolled, the acreage must be planted to a perennial conserving use cover that can be hayed or grazed outside the designated primary nesting and brood-rearing season in the county in which the land is located. And SHIPP would be a low-cost program because it would encourage the removal of poor land from taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance premium subsidies and indemnities.
SHIPP is just the first of several individual farm bill proposals that I’ll unveil throughout the year, and I look forward to hearing from South Dakotans about how we can improve this or any existing farm bill program, for that matter. By laying the groundwork for some of these key issues early in the process, we can make sure we’re doing all we can to meet the needs of today’s farming community.