September 30, 2021
On-farm conservation is a vital part of ensuring a thriving rural landscape. As a nation, we have historically invested in dozens of tools to help conservation-minded farmers do the good work of protecting our valuable natural resources and producing benefits that reach well beyond the farm gate. How farmers steward the land impacts their own operations, local and international water quality, pollinator and wildlife communities, and our national response to climate change.
As part of the ongoing battle to pass a budget reconciliation package, farmers’ roles in this last item have taken center stage. In order to have a real shot at both mitigating climate change and adapting our landscapes to the severe climate impacts we are already experiencing, farmers need to be a part of the solution to climate change. Congress is poised to recognize this with an historic $28 billion investment in a suite of working lands conservation programs, including nine billion dollars for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), four billion for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and seven and a half billion for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Programs like these offer technical and financial support to farmers incorporating hundreds of conservation practices into their operations. These include practices proven to improve carbon sequestration and transform a farm’s adaptive capacity in the face of extreme weather events.
Government programs like these are important tools that we need to employ right now if we hope to combat climate change. Yet conservation farming is bigger than any government contract a farmer can sign. To get a sense of where conservation programs fit in a farmer’s tool belt, we spoke with Paul Mugge, a long-time organic farmer in Iowa, about his enduring commitment to conservation.
Paul has been farming on his family’s 300 acre farm since 1976. Currently, he raises corn, beans, alfalfa, and various small grains. A member of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), Paul has been certified organic since 2001 and has been experimenting with ecological approaches to agriculture the entire time. “I’m not a ‘jump in with both feet’ kind of guy,” said Paul, “I like to try things out, take it slow, and build on what makes sense.”
And Paul has tried a lot. He has developed a three-year conservation crop rotation that allows him to minimize tillage and get more living cover onto the soil. He no-till drills his small grain of choice, fall triticale, in the fall behind his soybean crop and does not till again until planting corn two years later. Talking about this rotation, Paul says “the triticale really works for a couple of reasons. Fall seeding like this messes up the summer weed cycle, which is a huge plus, and being able to no-till drill the seed also lets me go two out of three years without tillage.” Paul is also able to sell the triticale for seed, as well as overseed it with red clover in the spring, getting added weed control, living cover after a July harvest, and almost 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre.
While this rotation delivers a lot of benefits to the farm and the climate, it did not happen overnight. “Before the triticale, I tried flax, canola, spring oats, spring wheat, fall wheat. I tried a lot of things,” said Paul. “I was fortunate to get started with the triticale by working with Iowa State University (ISU) on some research.” This illustrates an important reality about conservation farming: it’s iterative. It takes several seasons to find crops and practices that work together on fields, as well as resources and markets to make it all work financially. “Working all this out is part of the deal when you certify organic,” Paul said. “When you can’t rely on chemicals, you have to find other solutions.”
Beyond the rotation, Paul has also tackled installing prairie strips on his farm. “I’ve got strips in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that are almost 20 years old. I’ve also got four-year-old prairie strips on the contour in my fields I installed with CSP, and a few I did with the Xerces Society,” said Paul. This is a prime example of how conservation programs help combat climate change since perennial covers like prairie strips are wonderful at sequestering carbon.
However, one of the most important facts about all the conservation on Paul’s farm, it keeps happening, program or not. Farmers have a greater chance of seeing real benefits from conservation practices over time. For example, improved soil health helps manage water in the soil column, something that can take three to five years or longer to occur. This is also part of the iterative process of conservation farming, as many practices amplify each other when layered strategically.
Similarly, conservation practices have the greatest chance of mitigating climate change when they are maintained on the landscape. For example, an acre of crop land enrolled in CRP and planted to native perennial grass sequesters carbon over the life of the CRP contract, 10-15 years. But, if this ground is tilled up and returned to conventional crop production at the end of the contract, much of the stored carbon is lost.
This is where the broader commitment to conservation that farmers like Paul champion becomes so important. For Paul, the buffer strips he originally planted with CRP have a clear long-term benefit to his operation. “Those strips support all kinds of life that eat weed seeds and help keep my fields clean,” Paul said. “You can go out and look at the seed on the ground in the fall and when you come back it’s mostly been eaten. This is important for those of us doing organic that can’t rely on herbicides. You have to use the ecosystem services where you can.”
The time, energy, and litany of resources needed to support this kind of thinking and decision-making on farms is significant. Finding and applying good information to a farm business can be tricky and comes with real risk, making trusted sources and technical assistance crucial to long-term conservation success. “It’s much better than it used to be,” says Paul. “These days we have MOSES, ISU, and other things, which really help. I have used all of these as sources of information over the years.” And what about the federal government’s role? “My NRCS rep has been great! He really saw what I was trying to do with CSP and went to work for me. He made the whole process easy,” said Paul.
The optimal outcome of good conservation spending is farmers having a positive experience accessing government funds, as one of many resources used in their broader conservation efforts. Replicating this experience for other farmers goes a long way towards keeping folks moving down a path of increased conservation, and the foundation of that experience is capable NRCS staff at the county level. These are the folks that provide the first-rate customer service Paul received, the same folks lawmakers must support now through budget reconciliation. As it stands, lawmakers seem prepared to increase funding for NRCS staff by as much as 200 million dollars, which is a good thing indeed. Part of the plan for spending these new dollars must be an increased emphasis on outreach to underserved farmers and ranchers. While Paul’s experience was positive, few BIPOC producers can say they same and that is a pattern that must come to an end. We need all of our farmer serving federal agencies staffed with folks ready and willing to deliver the kind of service Paul received to any and all farmers who walk through the door, as well as go the extra mile for farmers that have been shown that the door is usually closed.
Paul’s story of building conservation over the years using a full tool belt of resources is not unique. Farmers all over this country, running all kinds of operations, rely on dozens of resources to create success on their farms. They are innovative, adaptive, and persistent, and the federal government needs to honor that by providing those key federal resources farmers are clearly asking for. In 2019 and 2020, roughly 75% of applicants to both EQIP and CSP, the largest working lands conservation programs in this country, were turned away. That’s thousands of farmers trying to do the right thing and improve conservation on their farms being told by law makers that they aren’t worth the investment. “If folks are asking for it, we really ought to fund those programs,” said Paul. “There is a clear public good created when we install conservation practices and the public should contribute to that.”
At NSAC, we agree. That is why we believe it is crucial that the dollar amounts proposed for conservation programs in the budget reconciliation package do not decrease. While there are some members of Congress that believe the total price tag of the package is too large, we urge all members of Congress to stand firm in defending the topline numbers allocated to conservation during the remaining reconciliation negotiations. Every year that these programs are underfunded is another year many farmers will have fewer tools in their tool belts. Every year we underfund, we risk interrupting the next iteration of conservation farming. As we face the climate crisis head-on, this is just unacceptable.