A few weeks ago, I spoke to a group of beginning farmers at the Farm Credit Services of America’s Side X Side Conference.   In part, I wanted to dispel the persistent misperception among young farmers that conservation is something for their grandfathers, but not for them. 

This self-perpetuating rural legend is tied to the notion that conservation costs hard-earned dollars today for some potential benefit far in the future. No! We need to put a stake through the heart of this outdated idea that conservation doesn’t pay right away. 

Farmers should expect a fair return on conservation investments—greater efficiencies, lower costs, higher yields. A good conservation project adds value for the farmer, the community and the taxpayers. In fact, if it doesn’t add value for everyone involved, it isn’t worth doing. Cost-share conservation programs make sense for young and old alike because they produce savings today in conjunction with clean air, clear water, fertile soils, energy independence and abundant wildlife. 

But to gain the greatest benefits from our conservation dollars—both public and private—we need to shift the emphasis. We need a new mindset that understands that conservation and productivity are not adversaries but partners. That means focusing our limited conservation funds on working lands.

As the world population expands from roughly 7 billion today to 9 billion in 2050, there will be greater market pressure to plant fencerow to fencerow—and to bring marginal land—here and abroad—into production. We need to protect and improve the productivity of our most fertile land while safeguarding our waterways and wetlands through effective conservation strategies that boost yields while conserving resources.

One way is to significantly reform the Conservation Reserve Program, as I proposed in my June opinion piece. See: http://www.agri-pulse.com/Opinion_10_10_10_knight_06152011.asp

Today, CRP covers about 30 million acres.  But a more reasonable approach, given the characteristics of the land idled under CRP is to drop that to 20 million acres. About 10 million acres are truly fragile, highly erodible land that needs to remain out of production. Leave that land in CRP—filter strips, contour strips, grass waterways and buffers. It’s marginal for production, and maintaining conservation practices on it keeps the soil on the land.

Roughly another 10 million acres are good for grazing or forage crops. That land can produce hay or biomass for energy production and serve as habitat for nesting birds and pollinators as well. These acres would retain most of the wildlife, soils and water benefits currently provided by the CRP and should continue in the program at a reduced payment while producing feed and grazing.

The remaining 10 million acres can be responsibly managed to again produce crops to feed people. According to the USDA, 8 million acres idled under CRP today are prime farmland. It’s time to let those young farmers bring that land back into production. Use no-till and precision agriculture to minimize environmental risks and yield a cost-effective harvest. The additional feed and forage production will greatly assist in stabilizing feed prices for all livestock producers and improve profit opportunities for the entire sector. The budget savings from this plan could comprise a majority of the expected deficit reductions in agriculture spending.   As I pointed out to that group of young farmers, this CRP reform plan will also afford the most important opportunity needed for beginning farmers – a chance to rent land. 

As we shift the emphasis away from idling land toward conserving soil and improving water quality on working lands, we need to offer incentives to promote management practices that protect resources while enhancing productivity. For example, take irrigation efficiency. Moving from a flood system to a pivot system or from a pivot system to a drip system will reduce water use by 20 to 30 percent. At the same time, energy use will decline by about the same amount—saving money and boosting productivity.

In 2011, we face tight budgets, increasing international demand for grains and nutrient-rich food and public pressure to see maximum benefits for every penny spent. Now, more than ever, we need to focus our conservation dollars on working lands to increase productivity while maintaining and enhancing our natural resources.   Conservation policy done right can make farmers money while improving our natural resources. 

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.

For more Agri-Pulse news stories, go to: http://www.agri-pulse.com/