U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Monday that he is not proposing the linking of conservation compliance with subsidized crop insurance, but he is confident that the farm bill will include some kind of regulatory leverage.
Proposals to cut between $23 billion and $33 billion from the omnibus farm bill have been floated to the 12-member "supercommittee" of lawmakers making federal budget cuts.
The committee's work, rather than the traditional process of the Senate and House agriculture committees, is expected to frame the next farm bill.
Vilsack, a former two-term governor of Iowa, said that because of the relative strength of the agricultural economy in recent years, cuts in federal farm subsidies could be made with relatively little impact to the state's economy.
In 2010, Iowa farmers received about $1.25 billion in subsidies. Corn and soybean direct and countercyclical payments were $745 million, disaster payments were $273.5 million and conservation payments were $215 million.
Much of the controversy centers on potential loss of the conservation compliance requirement that farmers must meet to qualify for direct payments, which Vilsack acknowledged Monday "probably will be going away."
No other federal farm subsidy program requires conservation compliance, and conservation and environmental groups have urged that such a compliance mechanism be added to subsidized crop insurance.
Vilsack, who gave a speech Monday to farm organization leaders at the Deere & Co. works in Ankeny, said in response to a question that "I won't be the one to say that compliance should be tied directly to crop insurance." He argued instead that Congress should be "creative" in coming up with ways to encourage conservation.
In a meeting with Des Moines Register editors and reporters, Vilsack suggested that the conservation compliance could be added to anticipated reworking of the USDA's Average Crop Revenue Assurance or the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments programs, which have been criticized for their complexity and slowness.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, who attended Vilsack's speech in Ankeny, also declined to take a position on the conservation-insurance link.
"I'm watching that one," said Northey, who added that he generally approved of what Vilsack had said.
Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University and an advocate of smaller, sustainable agriculture in Iowa, said Vilsack "obviously isn't trying to pick a fight."