Conservation practices are the single most important reason that dust clouds are not rolling today across the Great Plains to the east coast, producers and conservation leaders said at an Aug. 25 field hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
Significant drought covers a wide portion of Kansas, with 70 of the state's 105 counties in drought emergency.
"The difference between the Dirty Thirties and today is the imporved farming and soil conservation practices that prevent wind erosion and keep the Great Plains from experiencing the dust storms that plagued the area back then," Ron Brown, president of the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts, testified at the hearing.
Brown said that partnerships at the local, state and federal level are needed to ensure that landowners can apply conservation practices while maintaining economic viability. He said technical assistance to help with the planning and implementation of conservation efforts are vital and urged lawmakers to keep funding for conservation programs at or above the level of the 2008 Farm Bill.
He also urged incentives to encourage the development and consumption of renewable energy through technologies including wind, solar, anaerobic digestion, biomass, cellulosic biofuels, ethanol, and biodiesel.
Barth Crouch, conservation policy director for Playa Lakes Joint Venture discussed efforts to restore and conserve playas, the seasonal wetlands that are the primary source of recharge water for the Ogallala Aquifer.
He urged reauthorization of the Conservation Reserve Program, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and continuous CRP authority.
He said the country is in danger of losing the Wetlands Reserve Program after 2012 because it is one of 37 current Farm Bill programs that does not have a continuing baseline. It is the primary vehicle by which wetlands that had been previously drained can be restored.
Playas have been enrolled in larger numbers than ever before, in part because of a major push from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Crouch also urged continuing the Grasslands Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program.
He said he thinks it would be possible to reduce the cost of the programs by consolidating those programs and practices that are aimed at the same results.
Gov. Sam Brownback also gave testimony in support of conservation, asking for Farm Bill help in the effort to conserve the Ogallala Aquifer by providing for payments to water rights holders through USDA in exchange for retiring all or part of their water right.
Brownback also said it would help producers reduce water usage if the Risk Management Association would allow crop insurance for limited irrigation. Currently crops must the insured as either fully irrigated or dryland.
Kansas Farm Bureau president Steve Baccus told the senators that his organization strongly supports working lands conservation programs, especially EQIP. He also said it would help producers if they were able to re-enroll buffers and field borders, even if the entire field did not qualify to re-enroll in CRP.
Ken Grecian, president of the Kansas Livestock Association and an avid conservationist, also addressed the hearing.
Grecian and his wife, Barb, received the Grassland Award for Conservation Practices award in 2008 from the Graham County NRCS.
EQIP is one of the most used and most helpful programs, he said. But landowners have also been able to preserve some of the most important grasslands in America in the Flint Hills and the Smoky Hills with help from the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program and Grassland Reserve Program.
Witnesses at the hearing also urged rule-makers to consider allowing regular grazing of CRP lands as part of the system of maintaining the habitat for native species including the Greater and the Less Prairie Chickens.
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