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Leveraging Conservation Dollars: Agricultural Practices that Deliver

December 7, 2018


Egret in Grass Buffer– one of the conservation practices highlighted by the new report. Photo credit: Gary Kramer NRCS, USDA

Egret in Grass Buffer– one of the conservation practices highlighted by the new report. Photo credit: Gary Kramer NRCS, USDA.

Editor’s Note: This guest blog was written by Duane Hovorka, Agriculture Program Director at the Izaak Walton League of America, which is a long-time member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. To download a copy of the full report, a summary, and the League’s 10 Steps to Leverage Conservation Dollars, visit the Izaak Walton League of America’s web site at www.iwla.org/conservation/soils-agriculture.

With many big decisions about farm and conservation policy on the horizon (e.g., the 2018 Farm Bill, federal implementation of current conservation programs), an understanding of which programs and practices deliver the most conservation ‘bang’ for our taxpayer ‘buck’ is essential. A new report published by the Izaak Walton League of America, a National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) member group, highlights the benefits to multiple natural resources provided by five key conservation systems currently in use on America’s farms and ranches.

The report, Leveraging Conservation Dollars: Agricultural Practices that Deliver Water Quality, Wildlife Habitat, and Soil Health, describes some of the benefits of the following five conservation practices: no till, buffer strips, cover crops, Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and managed rotational grazing. All five provide substantial benefits for water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, soil health, and soil carbon storage that can mitigate climate change. The five systems work best when they are used in combination, which best allows them to deliver extensive benefits for multiple natural resources while maintaining and often boosting farm profits.

Despite their demonstrated benefits, today these practices are in place on less than one-third of farm and ranch acres in the U.S. This latest report by the Izaak Walton League of America digs in to the myriad benefits of these practices (when used alone and in concert), and makes recommendations on how to expand their use for the good of America’s farms and shared natural resources.

Delivering Multiple Benefits

The report brings together recent science that details the impact of no till, buffer strips, cover crops, Integrated Pest Management, and managed rotational grazing on water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, soil health, and carbon storage.

All five of these conservation systems are broadly recognized for their ability to address water quality issues – each, for example, has been proven to reduce runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus, pesticides, and other pollutants from agricultural land into nearby streams and wetlands. When these conservation systems are used in combination, they can sharply reduce or eliminate polluted runoff.

Perhaps less known are the myriad other benefits these systems provide to the land and terrestrial wildlife. No till and cover crops provide food and shelter over winter and well into spring for a host of birds, deer, and other critters. Buffer strips and rotationally grazed pastures provide permanent habitat for grassland birds and other wildlife. Integrated pest management can reduce or eliminate the unintended impacts of pesticides on fish, wildlife, and pollinators.

Each of these systems also helps to conserve and regenerate soil health. No till reduces erosion and protects beneficial mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Cover crops and perennial plants in buffer strips and well-managed pastures protect the soil from erosion, and their roots pump carbohydrates into the soil that feed beneficial fungi and bacteria year-around. IPM reduces or eliminates the use of pesticides that can harm beneficial fungi and bacteria. As they restore soil health, these practices also boost the soil organic carbon content. This helps the soil to store carbon from the atmosphere and offset the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.

Timely Policy Implications

The findings from Leveraging Conservation Dollars have important policy implications for the next farm bill, as well as for future implementation and rulemaking at both the federal and state/local levels. Farmers can receive support for implementing these practices in a holistic manner, for example, through the Conservation Stewardship Program – a program that the House-passed farm bill would have eliminated entirely. Thankfully, the Senate-passed version of the farm bill looks likely to prevail on conservation matters – something for which the Izaak Walton League and NSAC adamantly advocated.

Key takeaways and recommendations from the report include the following:

  • Congress should retain a strong Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which helps farmers and ranchers install conservation systems that integrate multiple practices. The new farm bill should maintain robust funding for CSP and other working lands programs, and should increase funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program that leverages state, local and private dollars.
  • Congress should also maintain Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) incentive payments for conservation buffers, and should focus more CRP acres on these high-value practices. The new farm bill should push USDA to focus more attention on regenerating soil health, and should authorize a ‘good farmer discount’ on crop insurance for farmers who adopt practices like those highlighted in the report that build soil health and increase resiliency.
  • USDA should prioritize conservation systems that deliver multiple resource benefits in implementing conservation programs for farmers. USDA should restore incentive payments for conservation buffers under the CRP, again allow farmers to enroll in high-value CRP practices on a continuous basis, and maintain full enrollment of CRP acres. USDA should also launch a nation-wide cover crop initiative under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
  • State and local governments should fund soil health initiatives, and should leverage federal conservation dollars through innovative Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and similar programs. States should also help every farmer create and implement a whole-farm conservation plan that addresses priority natural resource problems in their area.

To download a copy of the full report, a summary, and the League’s 10 Steps to Leverage Conservation Dollars, visit the Izaak Walton League of America’s web site at https://www.iwla.org/conservation/soils-agriculture/leveraging-conservation-dollars


Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment


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