Let’s just say it: I have always been a nerd. For non-nerds, this may not sizzle; but for those who understand the value of good farming for a better environment, this is going to be huge. This month, a bipartisan group of Senators worked together with the USDA to make a common sense fix on regulations for farmers, which will ultimately be a victory for clean water, cover crops (and nerds).
For those not familiar, a cover crop is a plant grown primarily for the benefit of the soil and healthy water rather than the crop yield. Cover crops are commonly used to suppress weeds, manage soil erosion and prevent fertilizer runoff into waterways. Sounds great, right?
The catch has been -- until now - that farmers wanting to plant cover crops were risking their crop insurance if they didn’t plant the cover crops within very specific guidelines. As business people who are already facing razor thin margins, farmers were - understandably - hesitant about taking on additional risk.
Over the course of just a few weeks, a bipartisan group of Senators, led by Sen. Dick Durbin (D- IL) and Sen. John Thune (R-SD), worked nimbly and efficiently with farmers and conservation groups. Together, with the USDA they adjusted regulations in the Farm Bill so that farmers can plant cover crops to protect their fields, help provide healthy water for all Americans and also have peace of mind as they know that their crop insurance won’t be put at risk.
The Farm Bill, as anyone who pays much attention to it knows, is one of the most complicated and important pieces of legislation in our nation. It helps set guide posts not just for farmers and their businesses, but also for how our food is grown, and how that process impacts the water we drink, the soil we live on and the way we all live together with the environment. The implementation of the Farm Bill is the difference between staying in business or not for many farmers, and it’s also the difference in healthy water for communities across the country.
The media – who are often nerd averse - may not focus on regulatory fixes, but bipartisan leaders moving nimbly to fix problems is reason for everyone to take note these days. The coalition led by Durbin and Thune, which included Sens. Brown (D-OH), Ernst (R-IA), Fischer (R-NE), Hoeven (R-ND), Smith (D-MN), and Stabenow (D-MI) - moved swiftly to make this change happen in time for the 2020 growing season. Given the importance of this for farmers and the implementation of the Farm Bill, the stakes were high, and these leaders rose to the occasion.
Farmers up and down the Mississippi River are facing a particularly hard year because of the historic flooding this season. Many of them have not been able to plant the vast majority of their planned crops. The stakes for this work could not be higher for them, their families and their communities. Working with farmers on these issues has also shown that they often want to be good environmental citizens. Living with the land, most farmers understand that good conservation practices are also good farming practices. But, when faced with additional risk, during such a tough time, no one could have blamed them for avoiding the issue. That’s why this fix matters so much.
To all of those who made this magic happen, please know that while it may not be the most attention grabbing headline you see all summer, the new regulations for cover crops will make a huge difference for farmers, their communities and clean water for all Americans.
Moira Mcdonald is a senior program officer for the Environment Program, leading the foundation’s Mississippi River and coastal initiatives.
The AGree Conservation and Crop Insurance Task Force, a diverse group of experts including agricultural producers, researchers and academics, former USDA leadership, and representatives from farmer-based organizations and environmental and conservation NGOs, was also instrumental in working to adjust these important regulations.