On February 28, the Senate Committee on Agriculture farm bill hearing will focus on conservation and the environment.  I think the most important question to consider is how can we get the most conservation for the money we have to spend?

We can begin by consolidating programs, reducing both administrative costs and time and energy spent by farmers.   As programs have proliferated, they’ve become too complicated and too prescriptive.  A farmer shouldn’t have to hire a consultant to figure out which conservation program to apply for.  Make it simple.  Clearly differentiate between the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).  Establish EQIP as the “fix-it” program and CSP as the “management” program.  Add an easement program and that’s sufficient.

Next, downsize the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and use the savings to adequately fund other conservation programs.  As I suggested in this blog last June and again in September, drop CRP from 30 million acres to 20 million.  Protect the most fragile 10 million acres, the most marginal land, with filter strips, contour strips, grass waterways and buffers.  But permit grazing or forage crops on the other 10 million acres, at a reduced payment, and you’ll retain most of the wildlife, soils and water benefits currently afforded under CRP.  Then send the remaining 10 million acres—largely prime farmland—back into production and encourage farmers to use no-till and precision agriculture to responsibly manage these lands.  Releasing these acres will also help young farmers find land to rent so they can break into agriculture.

Then put money saved from a smaller CRP where it will do the most good—on working lands.  Conservation should help us produce food and fiber to feed and clothe people with the smallest possible environmental footprint.  We need to invest in practices, activities and efforts that have both environmental and economic returns.  Further, conservation investments today are more valuable than those made tomorrow; so reduce cost-share support in the out-years of a contract to encourage completion of contracts in a timely manner. 

Let’s provide the support necessary to lead to a beneficial change in practice—just enough to tip the scales in favor of environmentally sound approaches.  A minimal conservation standard—such as swampbuster and sodbuster requirements—should be a given and tied to both basic farm program support and crop insurance support. It’s also important to keep the emphasis on the main things—water, air and soil decisions that impact millions upon millions of acres rather than on concerns that will have impact on small acreages such as hoop houses and organics transition. Let’s leave production choices—conventional/organic/natural—to farmers and their customers.  Our conservation programs should be neutral on these matters as well as farm size beyond whatever Congress decides on payment limits and farm organization structure.

We also need more research on conservation, focusing on cover crops and on double crops, on improving manure utilization and searching for a technological solution to legacy nutrients in sediments at the bottoms of our lakes and streams.   We need to realize that production efficiency and conservation are the same thing.  Additionally, we need to continue to improve and invest in Conservation Innovation Grants so that they form a bridge for conservation research.

While we’re looking at research, we also need to orient USDA’s research programs to include support for life cycle assessments for various commodities and specialty crops to scientifically evaluate how to improve productive efficiency while decreasing the environmental footprint of the food production system.  In addition, let’s search hard for a better means of measuring environmental outcomes—maybe something as radical as measurement of soil carbon as an indicator of soil health.  Consider doubling the number of Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) data points and put this information in a fully open-source format to facilitate information exchange for those involved in life cycle assessments.

We can do more with less if we consolidate programs and target the funds we have toward working lands and the research we’ll need to keep improving conservation and productivity.  Now is the time to make those changes.

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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