As Congress wrestles with the high-stakes policy decisions of the 2012 Farm Bill, a group of leading economists is weighing in on agriculture conservation issues with a series of reports intended to help inform the discussion and elevate the importance of conservation as a major economic issue during the current policy discussions.

The Conservation Crossroads in Agriculture report series was released this week by the Council on Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics (C-FARE), and features an initial four reports authored by top economists from around the country on key aspects of conservation policy. The reports were peer reviewed by noted authors and academics specializing in the particular subject matter. More reports will be issued in the future as part of the ongoing series.

“The changes made to conservation programs as part of the current policy context will have profound effects on our nation’s ecosystems, natural habitats, water quality and other critically important ecosystem services for decades to come,” said Damona Doye, Chair of C-FARE and Farm Management Specialist at Oklahoma State University.  “Just as importantly, these changes will also impact the livelihoods, farming productivity, and the well-being of rural communities across the nation.  The Conservation Crossroads in Agriculture series is designed to provide unbiased, high-level analysis from esteemed economists so that decision-makers have the most reliable, timely and actionable information available to them as they make these important decisions.”

The reports tackle four key areas currently being discussed in the context of the 2012 Farm Bill, including:

  1. Designing maximum-benefit, cost-efficient conservation programs;
  2. The economic and environmental implications of reducing the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP);
  3. The impact of crop insurance subsidies on conservation choices and land use; and,
  4. Examining the relationship of the changing federal incentive structure for the Conservation Compliance programs and the future impact of the program.

“American farmers have always identified themselves as stewards of the land on which they live and work.  As a nation, we have traditionally supported federal agriculture policies and programs that enabled these farmers to achieve this vision,” said Katherine Smith, a co-author of one of the reports, the former Administrator of USDA’s Economic Research Service, and current Chief Economist and Vice President for Programs at American Farmland Trust. 

“The current Farm Bill and related funding mechanisms raise questions about the role of federal farm policy in conservation funding, design and implementation going forward.  It’s critically important that lawmakers have access to the most current information and academic analysis on these important issues so that they can make informed decisions.”

Following is a brief outline of the four reports:

Top Ten Design Elements to Achieve More Efficient Conservation Programs

Prof. David Zilberman, University of California at Berkley and Prof. Kathleen Segerson, University of Connecticut

This paper examines how conservation programs for agriculture provide significant social and environmental benefits.  However, given budget constraints and pressures to increase production, conservation programs must further evolve to maximize effectiveness at the lowest possible cost to the American taxpayer.  This paper provides a “Top 10” list of improvements that could be made to Conservation programs in order to get the biggest bang for the buck, both for taxpayers and the environment.

Economic and Environmental Effects of Agricultural Insurance Programs

Prof. Daniel A. Sumner, University of California at Davis and Prof. Carl Zulauf, Ohio State University

This paper stems from the evolution of crop insurance over the past decade to become the most important subsidized farm safety net program in U.S. farm policy.  With the impending elimination of direct payments in the commodity programs, crop and revenue insurance will serve as the primary support for domestic agriculture.  However, certain design elements of agricultural insurance programs may result in less diversification of crops, expanded planting on marginal land, and increased potential for adverse environmental effects of farming.

Examining the Relationship of Conservation Compliance and Farm Program Incentives

Prof. Otto Doering, Purdue University and Katherine Smith, American Farmland Trust

This paper reviews the historical context of the Conservation Compliance farm program, and its impact on both farmers and civil society. The paper discusses the incentive structure of the modern conservation compliance system and highlights the risks and dynamics associated with changing this structure. 

Implications of a Reduced Conservation Reserve Program

Prof. JunJie Wu and Prof. Bruce Weber of Oregon State University

This paper provides an analysis of the economic and environmental impacts of a reduced Conservation Reserve Program.  The current context of federal budget constraints, coupled with historically high commodity prices, has led to scrutiny of the program.  However, the paper points out that there should be an equally robust discussion of the macro-economic relationships between strong conservation reserve programs and economic well-being.  Furthermore, the authors examine the historical relationship between the CRP and the conditions of rural communities, recreation and the environment.