Gathering at the table this Thanksgiving, Minnesotans ought to give thanks for farmers who grow food and practice conservation of soil, water, and wildlife. More than half of Minnesota's landscape is farmland. Natural habitats on farms shelter bees, songbirds, waterfowl, and countless other critters. Those acres also reduce soil erosion and improve air and water quality.
The conservation potential of farmland can hardly be overstated, yet the conservation role of farms cannot be assumed. "A Sales Pitch for Farm Habitat" explains the working relationship of farmers, local habitat specialists, and federal conservation incentive programs, which are coming up for renewal in the 2007 U.S. farm bill.
Here's my sales pitch: Read the story to learn why every citizen—urban or rural—has a stake in supporting conservation in the new farm bill. Most hunters know the farm bill's 20-year-old Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, has created a lot of wildlife habitat—more than 1 million acres of grassland in Minnesota. Thanks to favorable weather and habitat, pheasants thrived and hunters harvested nearly 600,000 roosters here last year.
The 1985 farm bill created CRP to improve soil conservation by offering farmers payments to stop planting crops on highly erodible land. When farmers sign up for CRP, they agree to plant grasses and trees and set aside the land for 10 years or more. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, CRP lands now prevent the annual loss of 450 million tons (37.5 million dump-truck loads) of the nation's soil.
Less soil erosion means cleaner water because less sediment, fertilizer, and other contaminants run into streams and lakes. CRP wetlands further improve water quality by filtering runoff from fields and pastures. The USDA reports CRP has protected 170,000 miles of streams and restored 2 million acres of wetlands and adjacent buffers nationwide.
Air quality improves with farm conservation too. Grasses and trees absorb airborne carbon dioxide—the principal greenhouse gas contributing to global warming—and store it as carbon. Harvesting crops releases carbon. But CRP lands sequester 48 million tons of carbon a year, the USDA estimates.
These environmental benefits would be lost if Congress cut conservation in the new farm bill. The upper Midwest CRP contracts would end on 16 million acres—much of it critical breeding habitat for the continent's ducks.
"The size and scope of the USDA federal farm bill is so huge; nothing at the state level can compete," says Kevin Lines, conservation easement administrator for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. "Absolutely, these are the most critical conservation programs in the nation."
With encouragement from citizens, Congress could write a new farm bill to fund more soil, water, and wildlife conservation and save taxpayers millions in cash crop subsidies. A recent analysis of CRP's economic impacts showed set-aside lands actually support the prices of corn, soybeans, and other major cash crops by keeping land out of production. If farmers converted CRP acres to cropland, then a crop surplus could result, causing prices to drop and federal price-support payments to go up. Currently, most farm bill payments go to price supports; 12 to 20 percent goes to conservation.
Kevin Lines worries that farm bill conservation might not have enough proponents. "As our electorate and politicians become more suburban," he says, "we lose the political connection to what happens on the land."
We city folks do have to look harder for our farm connections, but they are there. My parents gave up their rented farm when I was 3 and Dad took a job with a pipeline company. Though Dad never realized his dream of farming again, I am grateful for my farm heritage. And I'm grateful for farmers who practice conservation today.
Rewarding farmers for their stewardship makes sense. Conservation programs are more than gravy on the farm bill; they are the meat and potatoes needed to sustain vital natural lands and waters. If you agree, tell your representatives.
Kathleen Weflen, editor
For more information about the U.S. farm bill, visit these Web sites: