Over the last few months, our nation’s debt problems have brought us face-to-face with some difficult issues and traumatic events. This may be just the first glimpse of the far-ranging effects the debt will have on how our government functions. While the full implications are yet to be determined, it is obvious these events will significantly change the future of farm policy.
As we move forward, Washington is sure to maintain its all-consuming focus on budget cuts, this time through the newly created debt ceiling “super committee,” or via automatic cuts if that committee fails to produce a deal. Although the first round of debt deal cuts has spared most of the spending in the farm bill, agriculture is nearly guaranteed to face deep cuts in the second round.
And it seems that “doing more with less” will be Washington’s mantra for years to come as we grapple with challenges to our fiscal order.
This will not be the “fiscal discipline” of yesteryear. We will not be able to rely upon the old standbys of eliminating waste and abuse in order to balance our budgets. Instead, we must come to grips with critical questions of our nation’s values and the purpose of government.
Likewise, in agriculture we cannot merely look at cutting overlapping government programs or reducing bureaucratic staff, although some of that may be necessary, in order to achieve budget cuts. Instead, we must ask more fundamental questions about what kind of safety net we think is appropriate for modern agriculture, what types of conservation programs best serve the interests of the public, what kind of rural development strategy is most effective, and how generous all of these programs can be.
I don’t have the answer to all of these questions, but there is no question that efforts to deal with these fundamental questions must be based on core values. Part of why I love this country is that we don’t just offer growth and opportunity for today; our investments ensure that future generations will have opportunities of their own.
In my own life, I’m indebted to my dad for the proactive conservation he did on our farm, and I keep making new investments to ensure that the land is healthy and productive for those who will come after me.
It’s the same way with the farm bill conservation programs. These programs are the biggest conservation investment in the entire federal budget. They help support producers who own and operate nearly one-half the land in the United States, so they are critical for clean air, clean water and wildlife habitat.
No major conservation problem in our country can be solved without the contribution of farmers and ranchers. These programs are both proactive and reactive: they stimulate environmental benefits and help producers deal with regulatory pressure. Perhaps most important, the programs are vital to ensuring that farmers and ranchers are equipped with the healthy, productive land we will need to help feed a growing planet.
How can we reconcile the vital programs that support our nation’s core values with the relentless pressure for budget cuts?
Currently, conservation dollars are spread around the country in a scattershot method – what NRCS Chief White calls “random acts of conservation.” Our basic challenge is to refocus these programs and ensure that every conservation dollar generates as much public benefit as possible.
What do I mean by that? Here’s an example that usually gets farmers nodding their heads: If two neighbors with similar operations both apply for EQIP funding for stream fencing, and one is in a TMDL-impaired watershed and the other is not, which producer should get the EQIP contract? Clearly, the one in the impaired watershed.
It’s an overly simplistic example, of course, but it illustrates how policymakers will need to adapt the programs in order to preserve them in the face of budget cuts. We must move from random acts of conservation to strategic acts of conservation that focus resources on addressing critical problems. There are many good examples to draw from—the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative created in the last farm bill; the NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative; the Chesapeake Bay showcase watershed—but most of them are pilot-scale or one-off programs.
Going forward, this approach should be the engine of the conservation programs. Conservation assistance should still be available to producers across the landscape, but more of it must be allocated where it can really make a difference for the big challenges our nation faces.
Undoubtedly, the debt deal fallout will force us to go beyond just making programs more efficient. We will have to evaluate which programs should grow, shrink, merge or disappear. How we undertake this process will determine if we preserve important environmental benefits or if we erode them. It cannot be done randomly, with a blind focus on cuts. Instead, we must accept the reality of cuts and think about what we need these programs to accomplish for farmers, ranchers, consumers, and our land, water, and wildlife.
Unfortunately, thus far we have had precious little discussion of what the future should hold for conservation programs. In the House, for example, the conservation audit hearing did a great job of helping members understand how programs currently run, but the committee has not had hearings on how programs should be remade for the future. The Senate has also not generated a clear vision of how to reshape the programs. The risk now is that the debt deal—particularly the super committee—will force us to make these cuts before we are ready.
This would be a disaster for conservation and for the future of both agriculture and the environment in this country. These hard choices must be made deliberately, following public hearings and debate, and with our core values in mind—not behind closed doors with an arbitrary budget number in mind. Congress must take the time to get this right so that it works both for producers and for the public. We can’t afford to dig ourselves out of our fiscal debt by adding to our conservation debt.
About the author: Jon Scholl is President of American Farmland Trust, and a partner in a family farm in McLean County, Illinois.American Farmland Trust is the nation’s leading conservation organization dedicated to saving America’s farm and ranch land, promoting environmentally sound farming practices and supporting a sustainable future for farms. Since its founding in 1980 by a group of farmers and citizens concerned about the rapid loss of farmland to development, AFT has helped save millions of acres of farmland from development and led the way for the adoption of conservation practices on millions more. AFT’s national office is located in Washington, DC. Phone:
202-331-7300. For more information, visit www.farmland.org.