By Arthur Allen
Environmental issues don’t always focus the minds of the people who write the nation’s farm bills. A 2012 report showing that corn and soy plantings had chewed up 1.3 million acres of grassland in the upper Midwest raised hardly an eyebrow in Congress. Perhaps unsurprising, it took people with guns to draw the legislators’ attention to conservation.
The warnings came from pheasant hunters, who spend $175 million a year in eastern South Dakota (“It’s fun—like shooting free-range chickens,” says one) and have grown increasingly disheartened at seeing their best hunting spots turned into rows of corn. According to a 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the loss in grassland—two Rhode Islands’ worth over five northern states—occurred during five years starting in 2006.
Although the Agricultural Act of 2014, the farm bill that Congress finished this week and that President Obama is scheduled to sign February 7, cuts funding to major conservation programs for the first time since 1985, it also restores a link between crop insurance premium supports, which protect farmers against disaster or other losses, and conservation. It also requires upper Midwest farmers to refrain from planting crops on unplowed grounds for a few years in order to slow loss of grasslands.
These hard-won victories had some environmentalists feeling pretty good about the new law, though it does offer insurance support that, among other things, may enable farmers to indulge in risky practices such as planting on marginal lands, that is to say those in danger of erosion, or wetlands. And of course, hunger activists are demoralized by the provision to cut off food stamps to 800,000 poor families.
But the conservation outcome “could have been worse,” as Daniel Brito of the Union of Concerned Scientists puts it. The relinking of insurance subsidies with conservation compliance was “very important,” he says. So were small investments in farmers’ markets, organic farming, and sustainability research. In all, conservation will be 28 percent of nonnutrition spending in this bill. A breakdown of the bill’s conservation program budgets can be found here, about halfway down the post.
Some environmental groups were downright gushing in their praise of the law—which had been held up for years by partisan differences—and of the members of Congress who pushed it through. “Here’s to them for showing such a commitment to our natural resources and our farmers,” the CEO of the Nature Conservancy, Mark Tercek, wrote in a Roll Call op-ed with Martin Barbre, the president of the National Corn Growers Association.
Although the 949-page law is stuffed with farm supports, it cuts back the mainstays of conservation. The Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take sensitive land out of crops and plant species that “improve” the environment, will fall to a cap of 24 million acres in 2018, down from a 32 million acre cap this year. The Conservation Stewardship Program, which supports good practices on working farms, falls to 10 million acres per year, down from 12 million, which will be a loss of 20 million acres over the next decade.
Certain programs were altered in ways that suggest ulterior objectives of questionable environmental value. For example, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides technical and financial support for resource protection, was cut, but the cap on potential payments it provides increased from $300,000 to $450,000. That kind of money could further enable farming operations that are unfriendly to the environment. It would, for example, buy a lot of manure management—a nice little subsidy to increase the size of your Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.
So the bill is a mixed bag, at best.
But the hunters are happier about the conservation provisions, which may trade corn for more quail. “Overall, it looks pretty encouraging for our part of the world,” says Christopher Wright, a researcher at South Dakota State University who coauthored the PNAS paper, which was used by Ducks Unlimited and other groups to lobby for conservation of grasslands and wetlands. “That’s because hunting is such a big industry here.”
The threat to the habitats of pheasant, ducks, and other birds led to a groundswell of alarm in South Dakota, prompting the governor, Dennis Daugaard, to convene a “habitat summit” in December. The bill responded to this outcry: It includes limits on opening new commodity cropland in the five states of the fowl-filled Prairie Pothole region—the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Montana.
Compliance with conservation requirements, as you might expect, is tough to enforce, because state and federal authorities lack the ability to punish bad actors. Still, “it will be difficult to get insurance coverage for marginal lands,” Wright says, “and there’s quite a bit of risk to put that into cropping. I don’t know if it will stop grassland conversion, but hopefully it will slow it down.”
Grassland and swamps have been disappearing mainly owing to the dramatic increase in farmland prices in recent years, the increase in commodity prices, and the rather sorry rate the government pays farmers to take land out of production. But it’s less lucrative today than it was just recently. Corn prices are a little above $4 per bushel right now, about half what they were a year ago, which may slow the incentive for busting new ground.
Adam Warthesen of the Land Stewardship Project in Minneapolis isn’t convinced, though. Shrinking the Conservation Reserve Program will make it harder for farmers to get contracts to protect their land. Provisions for improving conservation on working farms have also suffered. The benefits of tilling lightly and rotating crops are “not rocket science” to farmers, he says, “but you have to incentivize them.” There won’t be room for many farmers in the program, because it is being cut by 22 percent.
And although it’s important to link conservation to crop insurance supports as an incentive, the vast majority of insured farmers were already technically in compliance with the conservation bill, according to a recent report by Jim Moseley, the former USDA deputy secretary. Still, it was good to make the link official, he says, to “avoid sending a fairly negative image to the public about farmers.”
But Warthesen believes that expanding crop insurance could increase land consolidation and the use of threatened land. “It allows you to bid up the land,” he says. “If you’re well financed, you take crop insurance to the bank, leverage it to outcompete smaller, less well-moneyed farmers,” and you can use insurance on high-quality land to finance risk-taking on lower-grade soils, which are the ones traditionally preserved for grassland or wetland.
“I’ve been hearing people say this is the greatest reform in decades. But I don’t see it. I think we just changed the vehicles of delivery of money,” Warthesen says. “Everybody just wanted a bill, but we wanted a bill that’s better for America. We were hoping for better.”
Jolene Rieck, ASLA, whose family has a large farm in eastern South Dakota, wants to see landscape architects become more involved in promoting good farmland stewardship in addition to urban sustainability. Whether the farm bill will point in that direction is unclear, she says.
“People think that what’s driving the poor use of the land is the evil farmer who wants to plant corn for ethanol, but that’s not the complete truth. The average farmer is not getting any younger and is looking for alternatives for his or her land. If they can make enough money from reserving land for conservation to pay taxes, they’ll do that.” But land prices have gone up, and the price paid by the government for land committed to the Conservation Reserve (which the latest farm bill, in any case, is shrinking) “haven’t kept up,” she says.
As for the linkage of crop insurance to conservation, “the effects of that remain to be seen,” she says, adding, “Conservation took a pretty big hit in this bill.”