As deadline approaches to renew the farm bill, Iowans waiting on funding for state conservation efforts

With a Sept. 30 deadline for the farm bill closing in, senators try to merge two version of the agriculture-spending package.


Joseph Cress

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks during a town hall meeting in Sinclair Auditorium in Cedar Rapids on the Coe College campus on Friday, March 17, 2017.

Julia Shanahan, Politics Reporter

In 2017, Iowa farmers received more than $3 million in assistance from a conservation program that could potentially be repealed as Congress works to renew a five-year budget that provides funding assistance and development for the agricultural sector.

The current version of what is commonly known as the farm bill is set to expire on Sept. 30.

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The Senate and the House have both passed separate pieces of legislation, but Congress must merge the two and pass a unified document to renew funding.

The biggest sticking points are in the House version of the new bill including proposals to cut funding from the Conservation Stewardship Program and implement work requirements for recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

The House approved a version of this bill that aims to repeal the Conservation Stewardship Program, which provides financial and technical help to farmers to enhance and conserve soil, water, air, and other natural resources on their land.

In 2017, Iowa received $3.7 million in farming assistance from the Conservation Stewardship Program. Farmers receive money based on the number of acres of land they have and how resource concerns can be addressed.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, was named to the committee tasked with merging the two versions of the bills. In a prepared statement in September, Ernst called the passage of the bill a “must-do” and a “must-pass.”

Ernst’s office did not respond to emails or calls from The Daily Iowan by the time of publication.

Top ranking Democrats told Politico that agriculture lawmakers admit that the farm bill may not be completed until after the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Some Iowa farmers and Iowa politicians in rural counties await the decision on conservation funding.

Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant, a member of the state Agriculture Committee, said repealing the Conservation Stewardship Program is the opposite of what policymakers are trying to do in Iowa to protect conservation efforts.

Iowa implemented the Nutrient Reduction Strategy that encourages farmers to use more sustainable farming practices, such as planting cover crops, but it does not require farmers to do so.

“Rather than regulate, we need to work with farmers and the EPA to actually help fix the problem,” Taylor said. “Right now, we are working against each other.”

Taylor said it is a common misconception for people to think the EPA is an enforcement agency. Lawmakers need to come together with the Agriculture Department to help fix the problem, Taylor said.

Conservation programs face the largest cutbacks on the House bill, with a potential $5 billion decrease over time for working lands programs, according to Politico.

Brett Barker, the Republican chair in Story County, said his county, and the city of Nevada specifically, have faced a lot of challenges regarding water conservation.

“That’s the primary hurdle we have for development,” he said.

Barker said that he has been working with Ernst to help his county move forward in water-conservation efforts.

The House bill also outlines work requirements in order to qualify for SNAP, supported by President Trump. Taylor said the requirements would add another layer of bureaucracy to judge how much someone is capable of working.

Taylor also said that by implementing work requirements, the government would spend money to fix an issue that does not exist.

“There would need to be investigators to study cases in question — whether someone really needs food stamps,” Taylor said. “How could [the federal government] possibly afford that kind of oversight?”

SNAP helps assist an average of 40 million Americans and typically accounts for a large portion of the farm-bill budget. In Iowa, 339,878 people were getting some kind of SNAP benefits in June 2018.

Larry Hodgden, the vice chair of the Cedar County Democrats and a part-time farmer, said he believed if SNAP benefits are going to be cut, the minimum wage should be raised so that people who are working are able to make a livable amount.

“Take a look at what the cost for childcare — by the time you pay childcare, you have to be working well over minimum wage to support yourself,” Hodgden said.