Another Dust Bowl? Lessons from the Past
November 16th, 2012
The Dust Bowl, a film by noted filmmaker Ken Burns, will premier this Sunday and Monday, November 18 and 19 on PBS stations nationwide. On Sunday, the first 2-hour film, “The Great Plow-Up” will air from 8:00 to 10:00 pm ET. On Monday evening, the second 2-hour film, “Reaping the Whirlwind” will air during the same times—8 to 10pm ET.
According to PBS, the film “chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the ‘Great Plow-Up,’ followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation[...] It is also a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us—a lesson we ignore at our peril.”
The origins of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are deeply rooted in the Dust Bowl and the soil and water erosion issues that were prevalent in the 1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt created the Soil Conservation Service, NRCS’s predecessor, in 1935 to help farmers and ranchers overcome the devastating effects of poor land management decisions and drought, especially in the Midwest and Southern Plains.
Since then, USDA and Congress have developed a diverse set of conservation tools, including programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which supports progressive and comprehensive conservation on agricultural lands across the country. CSP is for working farms, built on the belief that we must enhance natural resource and environmental protection at the same time we produce profitable food, fiber and energy. Soil erosion is a major resource concern within CSP, which offers soil conservation practices such as cover crops, residue management and conservation till, and resource-conserving crop rotations.
One of the most important conservation programs administered by USDA is the highly-erodible land and wetland conservation compliance mechanism. HEL compliance requires that, if a farmer chooses to receive agricultural program benefits such as direct payments on highly erodible land, they must work with NRCS to develop and implement a conservation plan to conserve the soil.
Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman recently noted, “farmers managing more than 140 million acres of highly erodible land have implemented practices that reduced the amount of soil washed into streams from ‘highly erodible’ lands by 40 percent. This accounts for more than 300 million tons of soil saved per year. Annualized since 1985, that is about 8 billion tons of soil saved on the farm, allowing it to remain a productive asset for growing our nation’s food and fiber, rather than washing into our rivers, lakes and streams, or blowing away with the wind.”
There is a very real possibility that, despite the severe drought and flooding that occurred this summer and fall, upcoming federal legislation will undermine both conservation compliance and the CSP, among other critical conservation programs. The 2008 Farm Bill expired on September 30, 2012 and took with it the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Grasslands Reserve Program, and Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative. These programs have no authority to continue in 2013. While CSP retains authority in FY 2013, it was unintentionally stripped of funding for new enrollments by the FY 2013 continuing appropriations resolution. Moreover, unlike the Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill, the version passed by the House Agriculture Committee does not reattach conservation compliance requirements to federal crop insurance subsidies, which make it easier for producers to plant crops on risky, marginal lands.
If Congress is to avoid another dust bowl for farmers and ranchers across the country, it must do more than reauthorize or extend the farm bill before the end of the calendar year. It must:
- Provide robust funding for the Conservation Title of the farm bill, preferably in a full five-year reauthorization
- Reverse the FY 2013 CSP funding cut, allowing NRCS to provide conservation incentives on 12.7 million acres of agricultural land, as it is required to do by the 2008 Farm Bill
- Refuse to use long-term conservation funding to pay for short-term drought relief, as the House of Representatives attempted to do in August; this short-sighted response to disaster threatens to undermine farmland resiliency and worsen the impacts of future droughts
- Reattach HEL and wetland conservation requirements to crop insurance premium subsidies
- Stop the relentless attack on mandatory farm bill conservation programs in the annual appropriations process; Conservation Title programs have accounted for over 83 percent of all cuts to farm bill mandatory funding programs from from 2007 to 2010, and the 2012 appropriations bill saw the largest single-year cut to conservation since 2002.
In the face of more frequent and severe weather events and increasing pressures on the land, now is the time for Congress to reaffirm its commitment to farmer-led natural resource conservation.