Funding for soil and water conservation programs in the new 2012 Farm Bill now being debated in Congress was the focus of a recent public hearing at Logan in western Iowa. The meeting was sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, or TCRP, and the Izaak Walton League of America, or IWLA.
The farm bill is only 1.8% of the U.S. budget, and about 75% of farm bill spending goes for nutrition programs. Tim Kizer, field representative for TCRP, calls it the Farm and Nutrition Bill. Only a small portion of the bill’s funding is for ag programs.
While TCRP stresses the importance of getting the Senate version of the farm bill passed this year, the Izaak Walton League is pushing several proposals. The 1996 Farm Bill exempted crop insurance subsidies from conservation compliance requirements, and IWLA wants that connection re-established.
• Debate on new 2012 Farm Bill stresses importance of soil conservation programs.
• Supporters say conservation programs can be beneficial to rural communities.
• Some say certain programs need to be amended to benefit small, young farmers.
Another IWLA proposal is a nationwide “sodsaver” provision to prohibit federal farm program and crop insurance subsidies on land that hasn’t previously been in production. Farmers could still bring this land into crop production if they chose to, but wouldn’t get USDA program or crop insurance benefits. IWLA believes this provision would prevent taxpayer money from undermining conservation goals.
The IWLA’s third proposal is to ensure conservation programs achieve their intended results and receive fair treatment with respect to all other authorized farm bill spending programs. To accomplish this, IWLA proposes preventing consolidation of conservation programs in order to maintain their specific functions, providing the same baseline status and 10-year term for the programs as commodity and crop insurance programs, and opposing budget cuts to conservation programs.
Impact of CRP program
The main focus of these priorities is conservation, which benefits farmers in the long run, says Kizer. He and other conservationists stress the importance of incentives to protect highly erodible land, and Kizer notes the topography around the western Iowa town of Logan as an example. “How do we protect valuable resources that are irreplaceable?” he asks. “We want to protect the habitat for humans and animals.”
Kizer and LG Seeds representative Tony Smith say programs like the Conservation Reserve Program are necessary, although not always implemented, in certain places. But they also note there are places where the program, which provides payments over a 10- to 15-year period to compensate for a farmer’s loss in crop production, is used unnecessarily. “In central Iowa,” says Smith, “there are fairly flat fields and there’s CRP there. Do they need CRP on all of that land?”
Harrison County Conservation Board representative Scott Nelson says the conservation aspect of the bill is crucial to the economic stability of rural and small-town Iowa, noting the lack of available land to hunt pheasants. “There’s no such thing as a fence row anymore,” he says, noting the decline of hunters traveling to the area. “It’s a huge economic impact. It’s being missed out on.”
However, Wayne Brincks, ag representative for U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa, says because larger landowners have more available land and receive high payments from programs like CRP, more taxpayer money goes toward large landowners who aren’t residents of the area, or even the state. “Rural Iowans will tell you taking so much land out of production is extremely detrimental to the Main Street businesses,” says Brincks, noting southern Iowa counties like Ringgold and Taylor as examples.
At the same time, Brincks says an economic incentive to conserve soil is a crucial part of relieving the pressure row crops put on marginal land, and especially with corn prices over $6 a bushel this summer, increasing conservation incentives is very important. “There’s reluctance by many farmers and landowners to put in an extra waterway, for example. I’m always looking for ways the government can encourage more conservation.”
One thing Smith points out as a possible answer is funding from private organizations, rather than government. Funding from Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited has helped him pay for terracing and other conservation structures on his farm near Woodbine, for example. “More of those private partnerships have to happen,” he says.
Over time, some incentives have paid off, Brincks adds, noting the rise of no-till as an example of the “land is precious” mindset. “Today, we have dramatically more acres in no-till and conservation practices,” he says, noting mistakes made by former generations. “We saw what our grandfathers did wrong with the land.”
One issue Kizer has heard often is a lack of understanding of requirements and descriptions of some conservation programs. “Some of these programs are just too complicated,” he says.
Kizer hopes with incentives like Pheasants Forever’s “farm bill biologists,” farmers can develop a better understanding of conservation programs. “This advisory program provides somebody in the middle who can interpret programs for farmers,” he says, noting Iowa has more biologists than any other state. “I hope to see that advisory effort expanded significantly.”
People at the hearing acknowledged “sod busting” has contributed to the drop in the amount of pasture and cattle herds. Although crop prices are a factor, Laura Kelley, with E4 Crop Intelligence, says the tedious nature of raising cattle is another factor. “Raising cattle is back-breaking work,” she says. “I don’t see youth or younger generations wanting to do it.”
Another factor is fewer youth are interested in agriculture altogether. “I can’t hire a high school kid to run a tractor anymore,” says Smith. “They don’t want to do it; they have other job opportunities.” He says maybe conservation programs need to be changed to reward people, especially beginning farmers, with conservation incentives for cattle and grassed-based farming on land that should be kept in hay and grazing.
Harris is a Wallaces Farmer intern.