September 19, 2014
On Thursday, September 18, the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing entitled, “The Benefits of Promoting Soil Health in Agriculture and Rural America,” to examine the steps that farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), state and local government agencies, and non-governmental organizations are taking to improve soil health on farms and ranches. The hearing is a welcomed indication of the growing priority on soil health shown by USDA and farmers across the country.
At yesterday’s hearing, the Committee heard from five witnesses, the first of which was Jason Weller, the Chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) — the USDA agency responsible for administering federal conservation programs. The other witnesses were Jill Sackett, an extension educator with the University of Minnesota; Jim Harbach, a farmer in Clinton County, Pennsylvania, who operates a 950-cow dairy, grows crops on 2200 acres, and utilizes the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP); Shannon Phillips, the Director of Water Quality for the Oklahoma Conservation Commission; and John Larsen, CEO of the National Association of Conservation Districts.
Chief Weller kicked off the witness testimony by detailing NRCS’s “renewed focus” on soil health, which had in recent decades taken a back seat to other resource concerns, such as water quality. Over the last several years, NRCS has worked with external partner organizations to increase the attention given to soil health. In 2012, NRCS launched a new healthy soils initiative, called “Unlock the Secrets of the Soil.”
To complement this new federal initiative, NSAC worked with USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program to publish a series of five blog posts on sustainable soil management, research, and demonstration. In February 2014, SARE organized a National Conference on Soil Health and Cover Crops, which drew more than 300 people from across the country. In conjunction with the conference, soil health forums took place at over 200 NRCS and Extension offices across the country. Approximately 6,000 farmers and agricultural professionals attended the forums to engage in local conversations on cover crops and soil health. Most recently, more than 50 percent of the awards made through NRCS’s Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program in 2014 went toward projects that focus on developing and deploying innovative methods for improving soil health.
At this week’s hearing, Chief Weller testified that NRCS conservation activities improve soil health by minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing plant diversity, keeping the ground covered, and letting plant roots remain in the soil as long as possible in order to photosynthesize and feed soil microorganisms. Conservation practices do not only improve soil health; they can also increase cash crop yields and reduce risk. A 2012/2013 survey by SARE found that corn planted after cover crops had a 9.6 percent increase in yield compared to side-by-side fields with no cover crops. Likewise, soybean yields were improved 11.6 percent following cover crops. In areas of high drought, yield differences were even larger. Other activities that improve soil health include rotational grazing, which allows roots to penetrate deeper and increases soil organic matter, no-till or reduced-till farming, and nutrient management, among other production practices.
Jim Harbach, the farmer witness from central Pennsylvania, uses the Conservation Stewardship Program, one of NRCS’s flagship working-lands conservation programs, to plant and manage a diverse mix of multi-species cover crops. Both he and Chief Weller noted that a “systems approach” to conservation is critical. Harbach further explained that he has been no-tilling for 40 years; but it wasn’t until he started cover cropping in addition to no-till farming that he saw his soil organic matter increase, his water holding capacity increase to 4 1/2 inches per hour, and his fertilizer, herbicide, and fungicide use dramatically decrease. According to Harbach, it’s not difficult to reduce chemical use once you get the “system” going, the roots in the ground, and the beneficial insects using the cover crops for habitat.
Harbach noted that, while NRCS’s renewed focus on soil health is a critical step in the right direction, “what we need is a mammoth soil health education campaign to teach farmers, federal and state agencies, regulators, universities, children and the general public.”
Jill Sackett, an extension educator with the University of Minnesota, similarly pointed to the importance of the SARE program in improving soil health. For more than 25 years, SARE has helped farmers and agencies like the Cooperative Extension Service and NRCS focus on soil quality.
Unfortunately, however, congressional appropriators have thus far chosen not to increase their investment in the SARE program for Fiscal Year 2015 (which begins on October 1st). Both the House and Senate agriculture appropriations bills for FY 2015 maintain funding for SARE at the FY 2014 level of $22.7 million — which is not even half of the program’s authorized funding level. Congressional appropriators have also proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to Farm Bill conservation programs in FY 2015. The House FY 2015 agriculture appropriations bill proposes to cut $109 million (more than 1 million acres) from the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), $209 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and $60 million from the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). The agriculture appropriations bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee would cut EQIP spending by $250 million, but would not cut funding for the other conservation programs.
We hope that Congress received the message at yesterday’s hearing that soil health must be a priority, and that research, education, and conservation programs are some of the most effective ways to increase the adoption of soil health practices across the country. As Congress finalizes FY 2015 appropriations legislation, NSAC will continue to strongly urge Congress to increase funding for the SARE program and to reject cuts to Farm Bill conservation programs.
Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment