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With many observers predicting that high grain prices will continue for at least the next few years, it's important that the next farm bill continue to protect fragile, erodible land from being farmed.

Congratulations are due Sens. Mike Johanns and Ben Nelson for supporting a "sodsaver" provision in the farm bill that was sent to the full Senate last week. The provision reduces the crop subsidy on native grassland that is plowed up to convert it to farmland.

Native grassland usually is found on land that is poorly suited for farming -- unless crop prices are near record levels and a farmer can rely on subsidized crop insurance for guaranteed revenue.

Taxpayers currently are paying for about 60 percent of the costs of crop insurance for farmers.

While the inclusion of the sodsaver provision in the Senate Agriculture Committee's farm bill is encouraging, there is plenty of reason to worry that grassland and other wildlife habitat will continue disappearing in the new era of high grain prices.

For example, the number of acres allowed for the Conservation Reserve Program would be reduced gradually from the current 32 million acres nationally to 25 million acres. The CRP program historically has been one of the nation's best programs for providing wildlife habitat and protecting against soil erosion.

Also scheduled for downsizing is the important Conservation Stewardship Program, which provides incentives for farmers who use beneficial practices that protect soil, water and air quality and benefit wildlife and biodiversity. The current farm bill calls for enrollment of 12.8 million acres a year; the committee's bill cuts that to 10.3 million acres a year.

As expected, the committee's bill marks the end of direct payments to farmers, which accounts for most of its $25 billion in spending cuts from the current farm bill.

However, the bill pumps some of those savings into the crop insurance subsidy program.

If not handled properly, the crop insurance program has the potential to turn into a boondoggle for taxpayers and a disaster for conservation. Loose requirements and lax enforcement could mean farmers getting revenue from crop insurance on land that never had a prayer of producing a decent  yield.

The 2012 farm bill is far from becoming law. The House has not announced a timetable for passing its version, and a vote in the full Senate has not been scheduled.

It's crucial the final version of the farm bill continue to provide incentives for conservation and guard against misuse of crop insurance to guarantee revenue for those who destroy grassland and other wildlife habitat in a gamble to farm land that is poorly suited for crop production.


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