As the next farm bill moves into final form, we need to be sure we’ve done our best to balance competing priorities and help farmers and ranchers be the best possible stewards of their land. That means developing farm policy that helps manage risk without reducing potential losses to the point where we promote planting crops on land better left in grass.
At the same time, we must maintain conservation compliance for wetlands and highly erodible land at the minimum levels of stewardship currently required by the “sodbuster” and “swampbuster” provisions from the 1985 farm bill. Since these conservation floors were originally tied to commodity support programs now being reformed or eliminated, we need to forge links to another critical program—preferably crop insurance.
But there’s more involved in balance than simply finding an appropriate way to maintain minimum conservation compliance. We also need to ensure that farm policy does not wind up promoting planting crops at the expense of working grasslands or favor crop production over livestock production. Farmers and ranchers own and/or manage their land, but we want their focus to be producing for the marketplace with a view toward making a profit there rather than using crop insurance as a crutch that supports plantings on land that would otherwise be more profitable maintained as grassland.
We need to preserve the nation’s working grasslands. Moreover, we need to avoid creating a crop insurance program so generous that producers perceive that it is less risky to farm ground that’s covered by crop insurance than to run cattle on the same land.
As a rancher, I am disturbed by what I see happening in my neighborhood. Large pasture units—160, 320 or 640-acre pastures—are being rocked, broke and farmed up hill and down, through the wetlands and waterways. Unfortunately, there are a few operators and unaware landlords with no conservation ethic. But we don’t need farm policy to encourage or support their behavior. To keep grass in place, it must be profitable as grazing land. If the short-term return on investment is higher for planting crops or the risk-reward is lower, grass and wetlands will be converted to farm ground.
Striking a balance is a tough job, and I commend our Senators and Representatives on the hard work and bipartisan spirit involved in putting together this year’s farm bill. But I don’t think the job is finished yet. Conversion of grassland to farm ground is one of the issues that’s really not been aired much or considered fully. Accurate numbers that track the rate of conversion are scarce. I hope we see more discussion and some program refinements related to these issues before the final votes are counted.
Toward this end, we need to be sure that our crop insurance policies don’t make farming so much less risky than ranching that bankers encourage producers to convert rangeland to cornfields. That means we need long-term easement programs to protect grassland and annual rental options under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for working grasslands that are large, robust and targeted to the areas of the country that are facing the greatest grassland conversions. We also need conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, to place priority on conserving and improving the productivity of grassland.
As acreage in CRP declines, we need to be working on transition programs to help ensure that idled land returns to its highest and best use—whether that’s cropping or grazing. A robust Transition Incentives Program that matches CRP land owners with beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers is a step in the right direction.
The 2012 Farm Bill offers not only a golden opportunity to realign farm programs with 21st Century priorities of producing to feed the world but also to strike the best possible balance between farming and ranching. We need to structure our conservation programs as well as our risk management programs toward these goals.
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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