IWLA Farm Bill: Regenerating Our Soil

When pioneers first cleared forests and plowed up prairies, they found deep, rich soils that were loaded with organic matter, healthy bacteria, and fungi, which made them incredibly productive. 

More than a century of plowing, disking, and tilling and decades of chemical use have degraded the helpful bacteria and fungi in the soil. Livestock are now concentrated in feedlots instead of spread out on the land, robbing the land of needed nutrients20. More and more of America’s cropland is devoted to just three crops – corn, soybeans, and wheat21. Fields left bare for much of the year encourage erosion. 

hands holding plant_Kyle Ellefson_Unsplash

The Dust Bowl of the 1930’s – when winds carried eroded soil from the Great Plains to New York, Washington, and beyond – highlighted what happens when drought and wind act on soils that have been depleted of the organic matter and microscopic life that binds them together. With today’s farming practices, the United States is losing soil 10 times faster than the natural replenishment rate22

Since the Dust Bowl days, federal and state agencies have focused on reducing erosion from rain and wind. After decades of improvement, progress seems to have stalled. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 2007 to 2012, total erosion on cropland increased from 1.65 to 1.67 billion tons, and erosion per acre increased as well23

To reduce erosion and restore real health to our soils, we need a different approach. Healthy, living soils and well -managed grasslands catch and hold far more water in a heavy rain than degraded soil and poorly-managed grasslands. 

Cutting-edge farmers have shown how – working with nature – they can restore depleted soils and return health to our landscape by eliminating tillage, using diverse crop rotations, growing cover crops, reducing chemical use, and better managing livestock on the land. 

Adding organic matter and restoring life beneath the surface helps soil hold far more rainwater, be more resilient to drought, and boost crop yields. It also takes carbon out of the air and stores it in the ground24

With a past focus on conservation planning for highly erodible soil, we have reduced erosion on the most erosion-prone lands. But today nearly half of cropland soil erosion comes from land that is not considered “highly erodible”25

We believe every farm – and every stream near a farm – would benefit from a conservation plan that builds soil health and reduces soil erosion and runoff into nearby streams.

The 2018 Farm Bill should help farmers and ranchers regenerate America’s depleted soils.

Defend Sodbuster

“Sodbuster” is a common-sense provision that reduces incentives for farmers to plant crops on highly erodible lands without having adequate plans in place to reduce soil erosion on those lands26

The provision applies to farmers who want to get federal commodity or crop insurance subsidies or participate in conservation or loan programs, but it only applies to the roughly one-fourth of America’s cropland that is considered highly erodible.27 It only requires that the farmer put in place a soil conservation plan to reduce erosion, but some oppose even that modest requirement. 

► We will work to ensure that Sodbuster remains a basic requirement for farmers with highly erodible land to obtain subsidized crop insurance, commodity payments, and other Farm Bill benefits. 

► We support long-term efforts to require that every farmer or rancher who receives taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance, commodity payments, loans, or other Farm Bill benefits has a resource conservation plan in place for their whole farm. 

Expand Sodsaver

The “Sodsaver” provision was added to the 2014 Farm Bill to reduce the crop insurance subsidy for farmers who plow under or break out native prairie to plant crops. The Sodsaver provision currently only applies in six Prairie Pothole states: Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana28

► We will defend Sodsaver and work to expand it nationwide to reduce subsidies that encourage farmers to plow under or break out native prairies. 

Promote Healthy Soils

While some programs pay farmers to take land out of production, the Farm Bill’s “working lands” programs promote conservation on lands used to grow crops or raise livestock. These programs help farmers and ranchers invest in practices that rebuild soil health, reduce runoff of soil and chemicals, and put in place better grazing systems. They can reward the farmers and ranchers who do the best job of stewarding our soil, air, woods, waters, and wildlife. 

The next Farm Bill should provide incentives so many more farmers “go big” to restore soil health by using diverse crop rotations, planting cover crops, eliminating tillage, reducing or eliminating chemical use, and adopting rotational grazing strategies.  

► We support maintaining at least current funding for the Farm Bill’s two biggest working lands programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. We support efforts to expand the use of these programs to regenerate our soil and improve water quality by offering added incentives for farmers to adopt practices like cover crops, conservation crop rotations, reduced chemical use, and rotational grazing.

Farmers who are the best stewards are using farming systems that keep topsoil in place. They are building the health of their soils, making them more resilient to drought and more able to capture and hold heavy rains. Their stewardship should reduce their risk of crop losses, but that reduced risk is currently not recognized in the price they pay for crop insurance29.

Worse, the current crop insurance system imposes overly restrictive rules on the use of cover crops, and can even penalize farmers who adopt good conservation practices like nutrient management, integrated pest management, and resource-conserving crop rotations, by raising their premiums, reducing coverage, or denying legitimate claims. The Farm Bill should promote soil health, recognize that good stewardship reduces the risk of loss, and require that crop insurance rates reflect that reduced risk. 

► We will work to see that farmers who adopt practices that build soil health and lower their risk of crop loss pay lower insurance premiums that reflect that reduced risk through a kind of “good driver discount,” which would reward good land stewards and encourage others to adopt similar practices. 

► We will work to ensure that farmers who adopt good conservation practices are rewarded through the crop insurance system, not penalized by losing coverage, paying higher premiums, or having legitimate claims for losses denied.

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