Farm conservation program could benefit us all
By STACY JAMES and CHARLES GOODALL
Harvest is complete and Illinois' farmland has entered a long idle period that will last until seeds are planted next spring. Many fields have been tilled, leaving bare soil exposed to the elements. Without living roots and a protective plant cover, fields become more susceptible to erosion.
And it is in this nakedness that we realize how unprotected some of our country's most productive and valuable lands are.
Proponents of winter cover crops are now proclaiming, "Don't Farm Naked." By establishing crops such as oats, annual ryegrass, and oilseed radish in the fall, farmers can protect their soil from being eroded away during the harsh winter months of freeze and thaw. Cover crops also suppress weeds, add organic matter to the soil, and absorb unused fertilizer that otherwise might run off the fields.
The farming naked metaphor is too useful to apply just to winter cover crops. The metaphor can be expanded to include the entire year and additional land conservation practices.
Like cover crops, other conservation practices have a multitude of benefits that allow for and enhance agricultural production.
In order for Illinois' farms to continue to be among the most productive in the world, we must achieve more intensive and widespread adoption of conservation practices that improve soil health and water quality.
Many farmers have a strong land ethic and are doing their share to reduce erosion and polluted runoff. But the countryside is still eroding excessively and our rivers are too full of sediment and farm chemicals.
The public costs of poor farming practices include nuisance algal blooms, polluted drinking water supplies, waterborne illnesses and lost recreational opportunities. In East Central Illinois, lakes Vermilion, Decatur and Bloomington are impaired by agricultural pollutants. Consequently, the water from these public drinking water supplies must be treated before it is safe to drink. Aren't problems better solved at their source?
Earlier this summer, the U.S. Senate passed its version of a Farm Bill. The federal Farm Bill includes nutritional assistance programs, farm subsidies and agricultural conservation programs.
The Farm Bill paves the way for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer financial and technical assistance to farmers who volunteer to adopt conservation practices. These government resources have been crucial to achieving improvements in the health of land and water.
Unfortunately, voluntary efforts and programs have not solved all our water quality problems. We need a different, proven approach.
When the Senate passed a Farm Bill, it included a visionary amendment that makes recipients of crop insurance subject to conservation compliance. Conservation compliance requires farmers to reduce erosion and preserve wetlands in exchange for generous federal subsidies.
Since its origin in 1985, conservation compliance has resulted in significant reductions in soil and wetland loss, rivaling the benefits achieved by popular USDA conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program. Conservation compliance is already tied to a number of farm subsidies, but not crop insurance.
Organizations representing diverse stakeholder interests are advocating for this linkage of conservation compliance to crop insurance. Taxpayers shell out some $7 billion a year for crop insurance subsidies.
In exchange for this investment, more than 100 million acres of cropland could be held to reasonable conservation standards that provide the public with a bounty of ecosystem services.
The Farm Bill expired at the end of September, and the future of federal farm programs is uncertain as we face the fiscal cliff. Whether this important piece of legislation will be revisited in the lame duck session is yet to be determined.
Unfortunately, the U.S. House does not appear to have the political will to link conservation compliance to crop insurance. Congress faces significant pressure from powerful lobbyists who want few strings attached to government subsidies.
History has taught us that we must look beyond immediate financial gain and safeguard our lands from destruction. Ken Burns' documentary on the Dust Bowl is a timely reminder of where we have been and where we may circle back to if we are not careful. The winds of change are blowing, and we can change in turn.
Dr. Stacy James is a water resources scientist at Prairie Rivers Network, Illinois' statewide river conservation organization and the state affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation. Charles Goodall is a retired farmer who oversees 1,200 acres of cropland. He is a Prairie Rivers Network board member.