By Katherine R. Smith

Few places on earth have been blessed with the abundance of productive, fertile soil as America has been.    Our rich soils ensure our abundant supply of food and fiber which is a true national treasure worthy of safeguarding.  Indeed, back in 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote, “the nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself. “  Appropriately, since the days of the Dust Bowl, wise public policy and innovative technologies have assured that this national resource is protected from wind, sheet and till erosion.  However, a new set of challenges faces us, and our ability to produce our national bounty.  We must redouble our efforts to protect our nation’s soils.

Consider, current high commodity prices are an incentive to increase crop acreage.  We saw a dramatic increase in planted acres this Spring.  Moreover, growing global demand will provide the incentive to plant crops not only more extensively, but more intensively.  It is a simple fact that natural resources are not evenly distributed around the globe.  America’s farmland will play an important role in providing food and fiber for the global market well into the future.

Moreover, policy changes will be a catalyst to changing the way America farms.  For example, virtually all the current farm bill proposals provide for a greater reliance on farm revenue protection programs, as opposed to traditional crop support programs.   This policy shift makes it more likely that additional marginal lands will be brought into production – lands that otherwise would be too risky to cultivate without the protection of a subsidized insurance-based safety net.

Another significant policy change is in the offing.  For more than 25 years, traditional crop support programs have been coupled with a conservation compliance requirement ensuring protection of our soils.  Congress, however, appears to be making federally subsidized crop insurance the primary financial risk management tool for farmers without the benefit of conservation compliance.  This is a dangerous move away from a tried and true safeguard against excessive soil erosion. 

Indeed, the USDA’s Economic Research has reported that conservation compliance has reduced erosion on our most vulnerable soils by 40 percent over the past two-and-a-half decades.  To put that in a visual context, the soil that has been saved is enough to cover the National Mall from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the steps of the Capitol, at twice the height of the Washington monument.  Failure to attach a conservation compliance mechanism to insurance program subsidies would lead some producers to decide that farm program benefits are not large enough to warrant the cost of complying with soil erosion standards on highly erodible land.

Other likely policy changes, such as the Senate farm bill’s proposal to decrease the size of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) from 32 million to 25 acres, will also add to an increase in erosion rates.  A smaller CRP means that more highly erodible or otherwise environmentally sensitive land will come back into production.  

While it is true that technological advances enabling conservation tillage and no-till farming practices have dramatically reduced erosion over the past two decades, we may be on the cusp of a new dilemma: herbicide resistant weeds.  Conservation tillage relies on herbicides rather than “bare earth” farming practices for weed control.  Yet, at a recent National Academy of Sciences summit on herbicide-resistant weeds, it was widely predicted that farmers may soon have to revert to turning over more soil in order to manage weeds.  Some cotton producers are coping with this reality right now.

The combination of more land in production, less protection for vulnerable acres, and increased tillage alone is a recipe for sharp increases in soil erosion.  Imagine, however, what could happen if we also mix in sustained drought or extreme storms. With more soil exposed, the potential for extreme weather events to blow or wash a substantial amount of soil off-site is far greater than it has been for decades.

Weather we can’t control.  Global demand for more food and different diets is a long term trend well in place.  Over the next two generations, overall food production will have to increase by 70 percent, and it will have to come from those places on earth that can best meet this demand, including American farmland.   These facts should strongly color our thinking about conservation programs and their funding in the farm bill.  We literally can’t afford the widespread loss of our precious soils.  As President Roosevelt warned, our nation is at risk.

Katherine R. Smith

Chief Economist and Vice President for Programs

American Farmland Trust

Saving the Land that Sustains Us




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