WASHINGTON, March 20, 2017 – To encourage conservation, the upcoming farm bill should leave farmers in charge of how to best care for the land and water while helping growers see how conservation helps them economically.

Those views popped up often when a panel of conservation program consultants and long-time advocates discussed what’s working and what’s needed in U.S. conservation policy in a session at the Agri-Pulse Communications’ Farm Bill Summit at the National Press Club.

Broad success in improving land and water health shows that “voluntary, incentive-based, private land conservation works,” and that should remain the approach to future federal conservation programs, declared Dave White, a former chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and current partner in the 9b Group, conservation consultants. He noted that “70 percent of the land in the lower 48 states is owned by regular people.” While management of federal and state land is also important, he said, “the quality of the environment will be determined by the quality of the decisions by the men and women who own that land.”

Tina May, director of sustainability for Land O’Lakes, agreed. Her Minnesota-based company touches farmers and ranchers controlling about half of U.S. farmland, she said. “We have to make sure the farmer’s voice comes through on conservation,” she said, and that will be best accomplished with the kind of big data that can “pinpoint for them the agronomic impacts of their management decisions.” That means, “we need to de-risk conservation for farmers,” helping them to apply conservation practices that benefit both their profitability and the long-term health of their land and water.

But also, White said, some critical conservation practices benefit national and global air and water quality but don’t benefit farmers immediately, so “we have to find ways to incentivize practices that have huge off-farm benefits but few on-farm benefits.”

Farmers have a big need for help with the access to data and economic assessments that make conservation practices make sense for them,” agreed Suzy Friedman, senior director of agriculture sustainability for the Environmental Defense Fund. “But the reality is there is not a lot more money on the table” to pay for conservation assistance in the next farm bill, she said. The panelists noted that House and Senate appropriations committees have made a habit of slicing money out of five-year spending levels for conservation programs when they carve out their annual spending allowances.

Also, the panelists and others at the summit grimaced about President Trump’s budget, which would terminate USDA’s technical conservation assistance, and they agreed that coalitions of lobbyists advocating for those programs will have some work to do to retain funding. May noted, though, that companies in the food and agriculture sector can and do create and expand conservation incentives and provide technical help to farmers.

Eric Lindstrom, agricultural policy manager for Ducks Unlimited, said advocates for conservation program funding must work with others backing funding for other provisions, such as crop insurance subsidies, in a united front in farm bill negotiations. “We couldn’t achieve our mission without working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers,” he said.

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The Farm Bill Summit attracted hundreds of stakeholders from across the agricultural spectrum as the Agriculture Committees in the House and Senate are beginning to debate the 2018 farm bill, which will direct U.S. agriculture policy, usually for a five-year period.

Besides conservation, the day-long event featured panels on subjects including risk management, nutrition, and how to bring the next generation back to farming. House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway spoke about the need for commodity groups and agriculture organizations to get their suggestions for the next farm bill in early, to make sure the ideas get the proper committee consideration.

Other scheduled speakers included Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the panel’s ranking member.