Voluntary conservation: It works!

By Bruce Knight

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Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions

As we look ahead to a new year, a new Administration and a new farm bill, it's important to recognize what works and what doesn't. Top of my list of approaches that really work? Voluntary conservation-no surprise there.

I'm really tired of hearing that - because every environmental issue has not yet been resolved - voluntary conservation is insufficient and more regulation is needed. Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico and algae in Lake Erie are long-term problems that will take continued, concerted effort-and not just from the agricultural community. Those who know that voluntary conservation works, but continually repeat the tired refrain about the need for regulation are spreading falsehoods to the detriment of those who actually implement and maintain conservation practices. It's time to stop. Unfortunately, we still have hunger in this country, but we don't say food stamps have failed. We still have traffic accidents, but we don't abandon traffic laws as useless.

Experience a renewed commitment to crop insurance.

Most of our nation's landowners care about the future, not only for those who will inherit their land, but for all who depend on our nation's natural resources. I was recently reminded of the deep value farmers and ranchers place on preserving and enhancing their land at a South Dakota Cattlemen's Convention, where I met the 2016 winners of the Sand County Foundation's South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award: The Cronin Family from my home state of South Dakota. As a board member of the Sand County Foundation, I enjoy meeting award winners like the Cronin Family from all across the country who epitomize private lands stewardship.

Mike and Monty Cronin and their farm manager Dan Forgey have demonstrated their commitment to the land and the value of implementing no till, planned grazing and wintering cows on cover crops and crop aftermath. I love what Mike had to say in the video referenced at the hotlink above about how their family's land use philosophy has changed over time. “Monty's and my grandfather broke the land, and my Dad took everything out of the land. And it's Monty's and my job to put it back.”

That's what the stewardship ethic is all about-putting it back. Keeping the soil on the land, building it up through manure and cover crops and restoring and retaining productivity. Not because someone in Washington, D.C., or Pierre, South Dakota, threatens to fine you if you don't. But because you know it will reduce erosion, increase soil health, boost productivity and benefit the bottom line both today and tomorrow.

The best stewards of the land are not governments or NGOs but private landowners who have a vested interest in preserving the resources entrusted to them by previous generations to pass on to their own children and grandchildren. It is a great encouragement to me that Aldo Leopold's stewardship ethic is still alive and well among private landowners like the Cronins.

We face many complex environmental problems as a nation-from climate change to dwindling pollinators to dead zones in the Gulf. But those best equipped to address these problems are the landowners who want to leave their land in better shape than when they took it over because of their commitment to stewardship. Let's maintain and strengthen voluntary conservation programs to encourage them.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems

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