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Thune: Latest ag initiative could save taxpayers $50M

Newly proposed legislation could save taxpayers $50 million over 10 years while closing an unintended loophole to the sodsaver program. A bipartisan initiative backed by U.S. Sen. John Thune, U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem and two Minnesota Democrats woul...

U.S. Sen. John Thune speaks to a crowd in 2017 at Dakotafest in Mitchell. (Republic file photo)
U.S. Sen. John Thune speaks to a crowd in 2017 at Dakotafest in Mitchell. (Republic file photo)

Newly proposed legislation could save taxpayers $50 million over 10 years while closing an unintended loophole to the sodsaver program.

A bipartisan initiative backed by U.S. Sen. John Thune, U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem and two Minnesota Democrats would expand the sodsaver initiative from the Prairie Pothole Region nationwide, a program that disincentives farmers from converting native sod to cropland.

But the legislation known as the American Prairie Conservation Act would also provide an added benefit.

"We also tighten up this loophole that got sort of taken advantage of in the 2014 bill where producers would plant alfalfa to some of these acres and basically found a way to game the program," Thune said Wednesday in an interview with The Daily Republic.

According to a joint press release issue Wednesday, the loophole "allows certain noninsured crops to be planted four consecutive years with no reduction in crop insurance assistance for succeeding insured crops." The initiative would button up the loophole, requiring four cumulative years of crop insurance reductions before insurable crops planted on native sod are no longer subject to sodsaver provisions.

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The sodsaver provisions have been in place in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Montana and Nebraska, but would be implemented throughout the country if approved. And other than the loophole, it's worked well in Thune's home state.

"The way the average person is affected is it saves taxpayer money, it eliminates and unintended crop insurance incentive to break up some of this native sod in the first place, and it also at the same time has the advantage of protecting America's diminishing prairie grasslands," said Thune, "which are so important to our livestock producers in South Dakota, and also our wildlife producers as well."

Noem, who introduced the House version of the initiative, looked at the act from the perspective of an "avid hunter and a lifelong farmer."

"With the Protect Our Prairies language included, the 2014 farm bill has helped strike a healthier balance between production and conservation in the Prairie Pothole Region," Noem said in the press release. "With proven results and the prospect of additional savings for taxpayers, now is the time to expand the program nationwide."

South Dakota's other congressional delegate, U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, is a co-sponsor of the act.

Under the act, crop insurance would reflect production capabilities on native sod, which Thune said can't generate yields quite like existing cropland can. And he sees the bipartisan legislation as the type of good governance that should receive further bipartisan backing.

"You know, there's always a little bit of resistance at times when you talk about some of these reforms, but I think by and large this is something that hopefully the commodity groups and everybody will embrace," Thune said. "Because in the long run, I think it's just good policy. And if you've got native ground that has never been cropped, it probably shouldn't be cropped by now."

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