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"Increasing the amount of farmland set aside for conservation in the next farm bill would be "extremely expensive" at a time when Congress will be looking to control spending, a former senior aide on the Senate Agriculture Committee said today. "You're talking about large amounts of money," said Jonathan Coppess, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois and former chief counsel at the Agriculture Committee under Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). The Congressional Budget Office hasn't estimated the cost of increasing acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), as proposed by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and supported by sportsmen and conservation groups. Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, has said he wants to bring the program up to 40 million acres, from a cap of 24 million acres Congress set in the 2014 farm bill. "Another chunk of acres is going to be very expensive," Coppess said at a forum sponsored by the agriculture publication Agri-Pulse at the National Press Club. The conservation program, in which farmers sign contracts to take land out of production for 10- or 15-year periods, cost the government $2 billion in 2015, on the 24 million acres, the CBO said. Efforts to boost CRP are likely to collide with other policy priorities as agricultural interests compete for limited funds. Coppess said he doubts Congress will find more money for farm bill programs, considering early indications from CBO budget estimates and the cost-cutting approach the Trump administration has taken through the "skinny budget" outline released last week. "I think the odds are difficult based on where discussions have been," Coppess said. On the other hand, Coppess said, budget limitations aren't the whole story with the farm bill. Focusing on how policies work, instead of budgeting, will work better for pushing changes in the farm bill and possibly avert some political infighting, he said."

Posted March 20th, 2017