Outdoor Community Suggests Conservation Ideas for America's Farms

Duane Hovorka
Izaak Walton League listening session in Des Moines - credit IWLA

Nutritious food, human health and food security all depend on sound agriculture policy. There are plenty of tried-and-true conservation practices that provide all of these benefits. But so far, they have not been widely adopted by farmers.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics show that farmers have often been slow to adopt conservation systems that will reduce erosion, prevent fertilizer runoff, benefit fish and wildlife and build healthy soils that will produce healthier food. The resulting degradation of our soil puts future generations at risk.

So what should Congress do to promote more conservation on America’s farms and ranches?

That was the question the Izaak Walton League asked hunters, anglers, conservation groups, farmland owners and others at a series of listening sessions. The answers help inform the League’s agenda for the 2023 Farm Bill, in which Congress will revise and renew agriculture programs that drive day-to-day decisions on America’s farms and ranches.

More Conservation Dollars Needed

In the listening sessions, many participants lauded USDA conservation programs. Those programs provide incentives for farmers to adopt and maintain conservation practices that protect rivers, provide habitat for wildlife and rebuild healthy soil. Yet they also expressed frustration with the low level of funding for those programs. In Minnesota, a policy expert noted that fewer than one in six farmers who try to enroll in some USDA conservation programs are approved for funding.

“I’d like to see more support for farmers to farm the best and conserve the rest,” said an angler from Minnesota. Others called for more money for farmers to adopt better conservation practices, and more training and education for USDA employees, local conservation district staff and others who help farmers understand and put conservation systems in place.

In partnership with Sharing Our Roots, a Minnesota non-profit, the League heard from people who own farmland that they rent to farmers. These farmland owners are frustrated that USDA employees often ignore farmland owners and that farmers can get funds from USDA to change how they manage the land without the land’s owner even knowing. USDA should do much more to help farmland owners work with the farmers renting their land to improve conservation, they said.

More Options for Consumers, Farmers

Many commented on the need for more local meat processing facilities to provide options for consumers and farmers. Four large firms now process 85 percent of the beef sold in the U.S. Independent cattle ranchers have little choice but to sell to the four firms at cut-rate prices, and consumers pay more due to the lack of competition in the industry.

In January, 2022, the Biden Administration announced plans to invest $1 billion in financing to help build and expand small meat processing plants. The loans should help producers of grass-finished beef and pastured poultry and pork, favorites of many health-conscious consumers, to gain access to local processing plants. A Minnesota farmer said the 2023 Farm Bill should build on that effort.

Heard at listening sessions:

If policymakers can't improve voluntary conservation programs, then regulating pollution from farms like we do from most other industries may be the only remaining option.

Share your own idea for improving farm conservation

Modernize Crop Insurance

Taxpayers now subsidize over 60 percent of farmers’ premiums paid to insure their major crops against drought, floods or a drop in prices. Modernizing crop insurance proved to be a hot topic.

“Crop insurance should be targeted by land type, like federal flood insurance, so the program only insures farmland that should be farmed,” said one Iowa hunter. Land along streams that is frequently flooded should not be eligible for subsidized insurance; instead, owners of marginal cropland should be offered incentives to plant grasses or trees that will protect the soil and the stream.

One popular idea was to offer a crop insurance discount to farmers who plant cover crops and adopt other soil health practices. Farmers who rebuild healthy soils with those practices are at lower risk of a major crop loss during a drought or flood, and that low risk level should earn them a discount on their crop insurance.

Stronger Standards Needed

Many participants said USDA standards for acceptable soil erosion are too weak, allowing more than five tons of soil per acre to wash away every year. This tragic loss of topsoil is unsustainable since topsoil naturally regenerates slowly. They said USDA is lax in enforcing the Swampbuster and Sodbuster provisions, which require farmers to protect wetlands and conserve highly erodible soil to be eligible for crop insurance subsidies, farm loans, commodity payments and other Farm Bill benefits.

We heard broad support for USDA voluntary conservation programs, but many questioned whether incentives alone will reduce fertilizer, pesticide and manure runoff from farms that pollutes streams and contaminates drinking water supplies. In regions like the Chesapeake Bay, it took a combination of stronger state regulations and state and federal incentives to drive widespread adoption of better farming practices.

The same measures helping to reduce fertilizer and sediment pollution that have fouled the Bay for decades also store more carbon in the soil, helping reduce the impact of climate change.

Yet in much of the country, Farm Bill conservation programs alone have not been enough to measurably reduce polluted runoff from farms. A Nebraska farmland owner and Minnesota angler agreed: If Congress and states are unwilling to expand voluntary conservation programs and improve how they operate, then regulating pollution from farms like we do from most other industries may be the only remaining option.

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Top photo: Iowa outdoorsmen and women discuss the implications of farm policy at the League's listening session in Des Moines in March.

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