Protecting Natural Resources from the Ground Up

Duane Hovorka
Hay bale in a farm field - credit Pixabay

The goals of the League’s “Saving Outdoor America” Vision for a Second Century of Conservation includes putting better conservation practices in place on tens of millions of acres of farm and ranch land over the next decade.

The year ahead in 2023 represents a rare opportunity to make big changes in federal policy that will make it possible to achieve those goals for our second century. If we succeed, we can help landowners eliminate soil erosion, sharply reduce polluted runoff, reduce downstream flooding, grow healthy food, support fish and wildlife and address climate change. We can do all that while helping farmers reduce their need for expensive inputs like fuel, fertilizer and pesticides.

The changes the League is pressing Congress for would:

  • Put soil health at the center of America’s agriculture policy;

  • Increase long-term investment in conservation programs that have a proven record of success;

  • Focus conservation dollars on programs that leverage non-federal funds, like the League’s proposed State & Tribal Soil Health Grant Program.

The League’s priorities were developed over the last year with input from League members, other conservation and sustainable agriculture organizations, and farmers and ranchers. They include a new State & Tribal Soil Health Grant Program, an idea developed by the League to provide federal support for innovative soil health initiatives at the state and local level.

Also included is a discount on subsidized federal crop insurance for farmers who adopt soil health practices, an idea championed by the League for several years.

What You Can Do

The League’s policy proposals are a recipe for better conservation on the 900 million acres of farm and ranch land in the U.S., and we will need the active support of League members and chapters to succeed.

Members can write and call their Senators and Representatives and ask them to support the League’s proposals. They can write a letter to their local newspaper, speak out at a town hall meeting, visit with their members of Congress, and ask their friends and relatives to take action.

League chapters can invite members of Congress to attend a chapter meeting to discuss our proposals. They can host an information night at the library or a local pub. They can hold a free showing of films like Kiss the Ground that explain why healthy soils are so vital to our food supply, our climate and clean water. (It's easy to host a screening. Just answer a few simple questions, and our partners will provide everything you need to host a successful screening.)

For our efforts to succeed, members of Congress need to hear from their constituents, and the League has more than 42,000 members and 200 chapters around the country who can make that happen.

Conservation on the Ground

The day-to-day decisions made by America’s farmers and ranchers have a huge impact on our water, wildlife, climate and other natural resources. When a farmer tills the soil deeply with a plow or disc, it leaves the soil vulnerable to erosion from rain or strong winds. Conservation tillage – tilling the soil lightly – can reduce soil erosion by 30 percent and eliminating tilling entirely can reduce soil erosion by 90 percent or more.

In 2023, as Congress debates the Farm Bill, the League will remind consumers and policymakers that it isn't just a "farm" bill. It is a public health, clean water and climate bill.

Without the needed changes, experts fear the U.S. could lose more than half of its remaining topsoil in the next several decades, putting our nation’s ability to grow food at risk. The intensive tillage still practiced by many farmers can result in over seven tons of soil eroding per acre, and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) says there has been little improvement in soil erosion rates nationally in more than a decade.

Another conservation solution is using a cover crop. Planting cover crops to protect and feed the soil after harvest can hold the soil in place over winter, reducing the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus into nearby streams by 30 percent or more. Agriculture is the single largest source of polluted runoff fouling our streams, lakes and drinking water, so getting more farmers to plant cover crops and reduce their tillage is critical to protecting our drinking water and making our rivers and lakes fishable and swimmable again.

In regions like the Chesapeake Bay where many farmers are adopting these practices, we are finally seeing progress in reducing water pollution. Unfortunately, nationwide less than eight percent of cropland is protected by cover crops each winter and more than one-fourth of cropland is heavily tilled.

Conservation practices like conservation tillage, planting cover crops, restoring wetlands and prairies and better grazing systems also help address climate change. They can transform farms and ranches that now generate greenhouse gas pollution that makes climate change worse into operations that capture greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and store it in our soil, helping slow climate change.

USDA conservation programs are designed to help farmers and ranchers eliminate tillage, plant cover crops, adopt integrated pest management, improve their grazing systems and adopt other critical conservation practices. At $6 billion per year, the programs represent America’s largest source of funding for private land conservation.

Farm Bill conservation programs have a proven track record of success, but they are so popular with farmers and ranchers that demand has far outstripped available dollars. More than two-thirds of farmers who applied for help through two of the largest USDA conservation programs were turned away in the last several years. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 provided nearly $19.5 billion that will help reduce the backlog of demand for these programs but we expect that farmer demand will continue to grow.

Driving Policy Change

The federal Farm Bill is a sprawling piece of legislation that touches nearly every aspect of our food and farming system. Since the very first Farm Bill in the 1930’s, the legislation has had three primary goals: making healthy, affordable food available for all Americans; ensuring that farmers can stay in business; and protecting our soil and other natural resources. That includes the USDA conservation programs that provide $6 billion per year to help farmers and ranchers put in place conservation measures.

Much of the 2018 Farm Bill will expire in 2023, so high on the congressional “to do” list for the coming year should be enacting a new – hopefully better – Farm Bill. The next opportunity to have a major impact on farm policy may not come until 2028, and we cannot afford delay in addressing our water quality, climate change, and other natural resource challenges.

Without needed change, experts fear the U.S. could lose more than half of its remaining topsoil in the next several decades, putting our nation's ability to grow food at risk.

Through the League’s proposals to put soil health at the center of America’s agriculture policy, we could better educate farmers and ranchers—as well as lenders, suppliers, farmland owners and consumers—and promote the widespread adoption of combinations of soil health practices that provide multiple benefits for our soil, water, wildlife and climate.

By increasing long-term funding for conservation programs that have a proven record of success, Congress could ensure that farmers and ranchers have the money they need to make the up-front investment in equipment, fencing, knowledge and supplies to put conservation measures in place that deliver benefits for all of us.

Focusing those conservation dollars on programs that leverage state, local, and private dollars would multiply the benefits, making the best use of our tax dollars.

With this recipe for success, the League’s goal of putting conservation in place on tens of millions of acres of farm and ranchland over the next decade could be achieved. That would have a huge impact on climate change, the water we drink, the soil we grow our food in, fish and wildlife habitat and even the food we eat.

By restoring the health of their soil, farmers and ranchers win as well. Healthy soils can reduce or eliminate the need for expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides, so growers can produce the same or more crops and livestock with lower input costs. That will help ensure that the conservation practices that benefit all of us will remain in place on America’s farms and ranches for years to come.

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Top photo: Farm policy has implications for drinking water, climate change, wildlife habitat and the food we eat. Credit: Pixabay.

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