By Jon Scholl

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Now and into the future, our nation will increasingly depend on our agricultural lands to help solve critical environmental concerns. Hard fought gains have been made over the years to increase the funding for and maximize the participation of farmers and ranchers in conservation practices on these lands. But in tight budget times, we are now faced with the challenge of not losing the momentum gained in our drive to protect the environment and directing resources to deliver the most significant public benefits.

By expanding conservation and environmentally responsible practices, farmers can realize economic gains while at the same time delivering important public services by supporting renewable energy, conserving water resources, sequestering carbon, and protecting wildlife habitat.

At American Farmland Trust, we have engaged farmers to develop and participate in ecosystems services markets as a means to support the provision of these important goods. This work has encouraged farmers to incorporate the production of environmental services as part of their whole farm income.

Conservation can help reduce the cost of protecting the environment – but we need improved programs and policies in place to build on past successes. Programs that are more effective and efficient in delivering better risk management to farmers at lower costs to tax payers are just one example of farm policy that will better serve both farmers and consumers. Also, directing conservation resources to land that is already under permanent conservation easement will result in a long-term payoff for our communities and the public.

Among our priorities at American Farmland Trust is improving the effectiveness of existing conservation programs including expanding and strengthening the new Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative. The program encourages farmers and local stakeholders to work together to address environmental issues such as water quality and securing technical assistance and programs to help farmers who have not participated in traditional conservation programs to adopt new practices.

No matter the policies or programs in place, we must seek to reward a culture of collaboration where agriculture, the public and the environment all benefit. The BMP Challenge is driven by this approach. The innovative program takes into account the economic risks that farmers and ranchers must take when implementing conservation practices.

When President Obama addressed the new Congress in January, we were all reminded of the challenges we face as a nation. The value of public investment in federal programs has taken center stage along with the severity of a growing deficit and continued economic uncertainty. A look at the fiscal future of our nation requires a balance between public investment and public benefit – and when it comes to agriculture and an environmentally healthy future, a positive environmental outcome can be achieved in a fiscally responsible way.

Integral to meeting these objectives are policies and programs to support the implementation of environmentally healthy and fiscally responsible practices. Farmers, ranchers, environmentalists and policymakers must all work together to deliver on economic and environmental goals that bring together public investment with public benefit.

A healthy future for agriculture depends on an ample supply of farm and ranch land that’s in good condition, and just as important, we must find ways to keep farmers and ranchers economically viable so they can continue to provide the production and stewardship benefits we all count on. As we come into the real start of the 2012 Farm Bill season, we must continue to seek these shared aims for a public benefit.

About the author: Jon Scholl became the President of American Farmland Trust in July 2008, after serving as Counselor to the Administrator for Agricultural Policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since 2004. At the EPA, Scholl led the development of the first National Agricultural Strategy, first agricultural advisory committee and the first agency-wide cross media agriculture team. He also helped direct agency regulations on animal feeding operations, renewable fuel standards, clean air rules, and emission reporting requirements. In 2007, Scholl provided counsel to the USDA farm bill team on conservation provisions.

Prior to his work at the U.S. EPA, Scholl was Executive Assistant to the President of the Illinois Farm Bureau, among other positions including Director of Public Policy, Director of National Legislation, and Director of Natural Resources. Scholl also worked at the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

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