By Jon Scholl
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If you’re like most Americans, at some point during your life you’ve gone on a diet. Although diets vary, most require you to review your total caloric intake and identify some foods to cut back on or stop eating entirely. At the same time, we need to ensure that our bodies continue to receive the nutrients needed to stay healthy.
With our enormous budget deficit and the current national mood of cost-cutting, it is almost certain that the next farm bill will be forced onto a diet. Not only will there likely be no increases over previous spending levels, but there may actually be across-the-board reductions in every aspect of government support to agriculture.
If previous farm bills taught us anything, one of the targets for lawmakers will likely be the Title II conservation programs. Given that America’s farmland must be able to feed billions more people each year on a shrinking land base, focusing cuts on these programs would be woefully shortsighted.
Imagine the environmental degradation and chaos we would face by 2050 if conservation cuts meant that 9 billion people had to eat off soil that was eroded to 1930s baseline levels. Conservation programs are vital to America’s national security, because they protect the resources needed to feed our population.
Conservation programs also provide producers with critical tools to address the mounting environmental regulations facing farmers and ranchers. A robust regimen of conservation programs helps bridge the gap between the public’s expectations and our environmental standards. Americans appreciate the fact that well-managed farmland provides clean air, wildlife habitat, and groundwater filters that reduce toxic runoff into our lakes and streams, often at a price well below what other traditional clean-up options cost. To the extent that farms and ranches continue to deliver these publically-funded environmental benefits, agriculture can make the case for some regulatory relief.
Assuming that lawmakers do make cuts to conservation, the question becomes how can we do more with less while keeping the programs in place that enable us to sustain our land and water resources?
One way to ensure more bang for our conservation buck is to more tightly link our conservation priorities with the highest value environmental outcomes. One example would be focusing on what USDA calls “critically under-treated acres” and giving them extra credit when determining enrollment in conservation programs.
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) offers another example of how we might be able to achieve greater public benefit from conservation. Due to high crop prices, it is possible that the CRP will experience a drop in reenrollment from lands transitioning out of the CRP. If that happens, it will be important to ensure that the lands that can be farmed productively go back into farming, but those that are most fragile remain under environmental protection.
Another example of stretching our conservation dollars could include strengthening the Conservation Loan Program, which gives access to credit to farmers who want to implement conservation measures on their land, but do not have the "up front" funds available to implement these practices. Additionally, supporting the development of conservation markets could effectively leverage private dollars to buttress conservation work.
So as lawmakers begin looking for ways to trim the fat off of our next farm bill, they should think long and hard about the wisdom of making any cuts to Title II. Conservation programs are critical to our nation’s food security and deserve to be prioritized. They should be treated as a staple—rather than a supplement—to agriculture’s diet.
Though there may be some efficiencies to be gained from reforming conservation programs, one thing is for sure. The deeper the cuts to conservation, the harder it will be to maintain the overall health of the natural resources upon which our industry and America depends.
About the Author: Jon Scholl is the President of American Farmland Trust and is a partner in a family farm in McLean County, Illinois.
American Farmland Trust is the nation’s leading conservation organization dedicated to saving America’s farm and ranch land, promoting environmentally sound farming practices and supporting a sustainable future for farms. Since its founding in 1980 by a group of farmers and citizens concerned about the rapid loss of farmland to development, AFT has helped save millions of acres of farmland from development and led the way for the adoption of conservation practices on millions more.
AFT’s national office is located in Washington, DC. Phone: 202-331-7300. For more information, visit http://www.farmland.org/.
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