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What’s At Stake? Water, Soil, Wildlife Conservation

December 5, 2013

In October of 2012, Congress allowed the Farm Bill to expire without a new bill to take its place.  Instead, Congressional leaders cobbled together a temporary extension on New Year’s Eve that shut down a number of innovative programs indefinitely.  On October 1 of this year, Congress allowed that farm bill extension to expire, and these programs are now at risk of becoming permanently “stranded” without funding.  These stranded programs support half of the agricultural sector – including organic, fruit and vegetable, renewable energy, and livestock producers – and also invest in sustainable food systems, rural job creation, and the next generation of farmers.  Congress now has an opportunity to restore much-needed funding for these programs in either a full five-year farm bill, which is our strong preference, or in another farm bill extension. 

This is the fifth post in our “What’s at Stake in the Farm Bill?” series that highlights these expired farm bill programs and what that means for farmers and communities throughout the country. 

photoA wetland on the DeCooks ranch in southern Iowa. Photo: Mike DeCook.

Wetlands and grasslands are some of the most ecologically important and sensitive lands in the world.  More than half of all North American bird species and one-third of endangered and threatened species rely on wetlands as feeding or nesting grounds.  Similarly, the 2013 State of the Birds report lists nearly 30 different bird species that are dependent on privately owned grasslands in the U.S.  Both wetlands and grasslands also provide critical flood prevention and water filtration services.  Without grasslands to hold soil in place, erosion would quickly choke our waterways and degrade water quality for downstream users.  Grasslands sequester carbon, improve watershed health, and provide a critical economic resource to ranchers and the hunting industry.

However, since the 1600s, over half of the natural wetlands and 95 percent of the native prairie in the lower 48 states have been converted, and we continue to lose both grasslands and wetlands at a rapid pace.  Between 2006 and 2011 alone, farmers converted more than 1.5 million acres of grassland for crop production.  In some states, more than 90 percent of wetlands have now been converted.  The trend in wetland and grassland loss have stirred debate in Congress about how to best conserve these critical resources.

How the Farm Bill Helps Farmers Conserve Water, Soil, and Habitat

The farm bill is the primary tool for helping producers conserve resources on private lands, and has over time, in response to proposals from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and its member organizations, expanded support for programs that improve soil quality, retain water, soil and nutrients on the farm, conserve energy and sequester greenhouse gasses, and enhance wildlife habitat.

Several programs that have proven tremendously important in conserving and enhancing these environmental and economic resources have been unfortunate casualties of Congress’s inability to pass a farm bill.  Four programs—the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and Chesapeake Bay Conservation Initiative (CBWI)—were frozen in place when the 2008 Farm Bill extension expired on October 1.  For over two months now, USDA has been unable to enroll farmers and ranchers in these conservation programs, which often see twice as many applicants as can be accepted.  These four farm bill programs are now on hold until Congress acts to extend their authorities.

In the case of WRP and GRP, Congress must also provide new mandatory farm bill funding in addition to extending authorities.  GRP has no remaining funding from the 2008 Farm Bill to spend in 2014 and beyond, even if Congress were to extend the program’s authority.  And WRP only has enough leftover money to last one more year.  Until Congress resurrects these stranded programs and provides renewed funding, the investment that it has made in helping farmers and ranchers conserve vital resources hangs in limbo, with an uncertain future.

From the Field: Conserving Wetlands and Grasslands in Iowa

Mike DeCook and his family graze bison and some cattle in Monroe and Marion Counties, Iowa.  They also farm organic corn, soy, oats, and hay on about 100 acres.  The DeCooks started out as a conventional cattle operation over 25 years ago, before switching to organic, grass-fed cattle.  Most recently, the DeCooks began raising organic, grass-fed bison on nearly 1200 acres.  They still continue to graze some cattle for other farmers.

The DeCooks have been involved with most USDA conservation programs at some point during their three decades of farming.  The family currently has roughly 500 acres enrolled in CRP.  “We like to restore our native Iowa prairie, and the CRP is an economic incentive that helps us do that,” Mike says.  “The farm or ranch has to be economically viable, but there are other values also – protecting open space, water quality, flood control, wildlife habitat, and water retention.”

In addition to their CRP land, the DeCooks have nearly 280 acres enrolled in WRP to conserve 20 various sized wetland basins and the surrounding land.  The land was seeded with a diverse prairie mix of over 60 grasses, sedges, forbs, and rushes.

“We use it for hunting, hiking, canoeing, and educational purposes,” Mike says.  “Our main reason for the WRP easement is the ecological services it provides, for example natural open space, wildlife habitat, increasing native prairie, flood control, water quality, and soil protection.  It was also beneficial to us economically.”

Over WRP’s 23 years, more than 14,200 private landowners have enrolled 2.7 million acres in the program.  Under WRP, USDA purchases long-term or permanent easements to restore, protect and enhance wetland values and functions on eligible wetland that has been in agricultural production.  The program is competitive, with landowners submitting bids to USDA for enrollment.  USDA also enters into restoration cost-share agreements and provides technical assistance to WRP participants.  NSAC developed the original legislative proposal for WRP in 1988 as a pre-1990 Farm Bill “marker bill” and then advocated successfully for inclusion of the marker bill language in the 1990 Farm Bill.

Like WRP, GRP and CRP provide producers with long-term opportunities to set aside environmentally sensitive lands.  More than 25 million acres are currently enrolled in CRP, providing immense conservation benefits.  Under the CRP general sign-up, USDA offers annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to farmers to establish long-term conserving cover, primarily grasses and trees, on land that has been in row crop production.  USDA periodically holds general sign-ups and land is bid into the program on a competitive basis with ranking based on environmental benefits and cost.  The CRP also has a continuous signup, which provides payments to farmers to establish riparian buffers, grass waterways, contour grass strips, and other specific partial field conservation practices on land in agricultural production.

While small compared to CRP, GRP has helped producers conserve nearly 1 million acres of grassland since the 2008 Farm Bill passed.  This resource is vital not only for wildlife habitat management, but also for the livestock industry.  GRP emphasizes support for working grazing operations, enhancement of plant and animal biodiversity, and protection of grassland under threat of conversion to other uses.  Participants voluntarily limit future development and cropping uses of the land, and develop and implement grazing management plans.  GRP rental contracts can last for 10, 15, or 20 years, or producers can choose to establish a permanent GRP easement on their land.

What’s Next for the Wetlands Reserve Program, Grasslands Reserve Program, Conservation Reserve Program, and Chesapeake Bay Conservation Initiative?

All four of these programs—WRP, GRP, CRP, and CBWI—are authorized through and funded by the Farm Bill.  However, all four programs have been frozen since last October when the Farm Bill extension expired.  Moreover, WRP and GRP in particular face the threat of having no funding in the coming years if Congress chooses to pass another farm bill extension rather than a full 5-year bill.

Over the years that these programs have been up and running, they have developed committed constituencies made up of hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers across the country.  For those of us who are concerned about the quality and quantity of our water, soil, wildlife habitat, and other resources, there is cause for great concern as we approach the end of 2013.

It is critical that Congressional leaders reach a deal on how to pass a full and fair Farm Bill.  If they cannot do that, they must get serious about another Farm Bill extension that would restore mandatory farm bill funding for WRP and GRP, extend authorities for all four programs, and demonstrate to the thousands of farmers and ranchers who seek to use these programs that they will not be left behind once again.

Under the extension scenario, without new money for WRP and GRP, we can expect to lose hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands and grasslands that would otherwise be conserved, along with the flood prevention, erosion control, nutrient management, habitat conservation and other benefits that they produce.  NOW is the time to tell Congress what is really at stake in the current Farm Bill fight, and why farmers and ranchers cannot wait for a late night deal that may leave them in the dark.

Click here to learn how you can help the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition fight for a better farm bill.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill

One response to “What’s At Stake? Water, Soil, Wildlife Conservation”

  1. […] regarding conservation and the Farm Bill, check out this blog post: https://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/whats-at-stake-conservation/   NSAC has posted other blog entries related to “what’s at stake” for organic […]