By Bruce I. Knight

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

How much do we value conservation on working agricultural lands?  That's a question we all need to keep in mind as we approach the 2012 farm bill.

It's no surprise that Title 1 of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 is devoted to commodity programs.  However, next in line—Title 2—is conservation.  Will conservation retain a high priority in the next farm bill?  I hope so.

Maintaining the safety net for individual commodities will be the top goal for producers and the associations that represent them.  I understand that.  But will anyone pledge to make conservation their number one concern?  If not, do we risk backsliding on the progress we have made over the past 75 years on more than 600 million acres of working agricultural lands—progress in reducing erosion, restoring wetlands, improving water quality, using alternate energy sources, preserving wildlife habitat and saving farmland?

As our nation seeks a balance between stimulating job creation and reducing massive deficits, funds will be tight.  Already our legislators are scrambling to introduce bills to significantly slice federal outlays and personnel to bring our expenditures in line with our income.  

We want them to do that.  We need them to do that.  However, these will be tough choices and as farmers or anyone in agribusiness knows, agriculture and conservation will have to shoulder a fair share.  The tough job will be to determine "fair."

As ideas and plans begin to emerge for the next farm bill, we need to ask ourselves where conservation fits in a picture of leaner budgets coupled with ongoing environmental concerns.  The entire agricultural community needs to consider who will make sure that conservation gets the attention it deserves.

Over the years, conservation programs have expanded beyond simply preventing erosion and improving water quality through planting grass and trees on idled lands.  For example, EQIP focuses on helping farmers voluntarily gain the greatest benefit for the environment, whether it involves air quality, water quality or wildlife habitat, while CSP supports coordinated, comprehensive stewardship of resources on your farm.  Newer conservation programs are more sophisticated, and we now have high-tech tools to better measure their impact and to maintain productivity of working lands.  

You can actually track the ascent of conservation over the years just by checking title numbers in the various farm bills.  Beginning near the bottom of the bill in 1981 (15 of 18), conservation rose to third place by 1996 and snagged the number two spot in both 2002 and 2008, right behind commodity programs.  

Conservation on working lands benefits us all—not just farmers and ranchers who implement the conservation practices—but neighbors and city dwellers who enjoy cleaner air and water and more efficient energy use.  In an era of penny-pinching and budget slashing, how much do we really value conservation?  And how can we accomplish the most for the least federal investment?

Under the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, while other agricultural programs faced reductions, mandatory funding for conservation increased.  What will happen in 2012?  It's time to start thinking about how much we value an investment in conservation.

About the author:  Bruce Knight is a principal with Strategic Conservation Services. Knight was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006-2009. 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.