The country is having an important and long overdue conversation right now about infrastructure. To build the future that we want and need, we need to think long and hard about the ground that our infrastructure is built on. I’m talking about the actual soil we depend on for the nation’s agriculture.
Building a resilient agriculture future is the cornerstone of our country’s health and well being. In 2019, the agriculture industry supported 22.2 million full- and part-time jobs, and 10.9 percent of total U.S. employment. The success of rural America depends on agriculture, and the success of agriculture depends on ensuring the quality and resilience of our land and water resources. Yet for years, we have shortchanged conservation programs. From the technical assistance needed to support farmers and ranchers to the direct funding available for restoring and improving the land and water. Funding for farm bill conservation programs has not increased since 2002. In fact, it has fallen for more than a decade.
For millions of farmers across the United States, and millions more people who rely on our land and water resources every day, conservation is an essential element of our nation’s agriculture infrastructure and a core part of the way that we live, work, and spend time together. If we are truly going to invest in infrastructure - the fabric of our country - we must include elements designed to support conservation, by lifting up American farmers, and strengthening agriculture for years to come, whether it is through infrastructure spending or other parts of the federal budget.
First, we need to change the way we think about conservation practices, starting with ensuring the financial systems in agriculture incentivize the environmental outcomes we want. For example, we know the crop insurance program is an important part of on-farm decision-making, but there are ways we can strengthen the program so we reward farmers that adopt risk-reducing conservation practices like cover crops or insure the risk of applying nitrogen closer to when it is needed. These conservation practices and others keep nutrients in the soil and keep our water clean. This moment is an opportunity to adjust incentives in order to take into account the full value that they provide.
Second, we need to double the conservation funding available through the Farm BIll. Right now, nearly 14,000,000 acres of land are unable to use conservation practices every year because they don’t have the resources to invest in vital practices. Every year, demand for conservation on 13.8 million acres goes unmet because of inadequate funding. We need to support landowners with technical assistance so they know what conservation measures work best for their land, and we also need to make more direct funding available in order to help landowners use sustainable practices.
At the Walton Family Foundation, we are deeply invested in this work. For years, we have worked with farmers, fishermen, ranchers, businesses and conservationists to help lead by example and to chart an economically and environmentally sustainable path forward. Our work has helped drive innovation, advanced sustainability through markets, encouraged smart policy, and empowered diverse allies. But the truth is the Federal Government needs to play a bigger role in order to take these vital solutions to scale.
It is time to jumpstart the critical investments the country has pushed off for far too long. They would increase farmer and producer income and promote good, climate-smart agriculture practices that improve the health of our land and our people. They would help build resilience in rural communities, create new economic opportunities, and address the impacts of climate change. Ultimately, a more robust effort in conservation would be a victory for people across the United States, for communities that depend on conservation to survive, and for the environment as a whole.
This is a time to think and act boldly. If the Biden Administration and Congress are serious about reinforcing the health of America’s essential infrastructure, doubling funding for conservation must be a central component. That requires a funding level that recognizes the magnitude of the challenge, and a commitment to the kind of whole-systems, transformational approach that all Americans need and deserve.
Moira Mcdonald is the director of the Walton Family Foundation’s Environment program.
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