U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Conservationist Garrett Duyck and David Brewer examine a soil sample on the Emerson Dell farm near The Dalles, OR. USDA NRCS photo by Ron Nichols.

Congress Could Help Farmers, Prevent Pollution, and Reduce Flood and Drought Damage. Will They?

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | October 3, 2017, 2:28 pm EDT
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The news lately has been full of Congressional battles—healthcare, the debt ceiling, and now tax “reform” (ahem)—and it’s starting to seem like Congress is only interested in blowing things up. But a huge legislative effort is gaining steam on Capitol Hill, one that is likely to have general bipartisan support, though you probably haven’t heard nearly as much about it. I’m talking about the next five-year Farm Bill—which really should be called the Food and Farm Bill, as it shapes that sprawling economic sector worth more than 5 percent of US GDP, and which Congress must reauthorize by September 30, 2018.

In this first of a series of posts on the 2018 Farm Bill, I look at how this legislation could do more to help farmers conserve their soil, deliver clean water, and even reduce the devastating impacts of floods and droughts, all of which would save taxpayers’ money.

Farm conservation works

Since 1985, the Farm Bill has promoted stewardship of soil, water, and wildlife by directing funding to a variety of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs. These programs provide financial incentives and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to protect their soil and store carbon by planting cover crops, reduce fertilizer and pesticide use by rotating a mix of crops, capture excess fertilizer and add wildlife habitat by planting perennial prairie strips in and around vast cornfields, and even take environmentally sensitive acres out of farming altogether.

Recent UCS analysis has shown that farm practices like these lead to positive environmental outcomes while maintaining or increasing farmers’ yields and profits and saving taxpayers’ money.

And our latest report, Turning Soils into Sponges, reveals a surprising additional benefit: growing cover crops and perennial crops can make farmers and downstream communities more resilient to the effects of floods and droughts. The report demonstrates that these practices—which keep living roots in the soil year-round—result in healthier, “spongier” soils soak up more water when it rains and hold it longer through dry periods. Using these practices, farmers can reduce rainfall runoff in flood years by nearly one-fifth, cut flood frequency by the same amount, and make as much as 16 percent more water available for crops to use during dry periods. But farmers need help to do it.

A changing climate demands more conservation, not less

So it was a real step backward when the 2014 Farm Bill cut the very programs that help farmers build healthy soil and prevent pollution. That bill cut the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), for example, by more than 20 percent. A USDA official recently told a Senate committee that CSP is “greatly oversubscribed” and must turn away thousands of farmers who want to participate.

(Incidentally, the Senate will hear this week from President Trump’s nominee to lead the USDA’s conservation efforts, whose conservation record as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture has been mixed.)

Meanwhile (surprise!) the problems that on-farm conservation can help solve are not going away by themselves. Midwestern farm runoff has led to deteriorating water quality from Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico. And climate change will only worsen water quality and increase the frequency and severity of floods and droughts.

The latter is particularly bad news for farmers, and for all of us. A new report from the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, which operates the taxpayer-subsidized federal crop insurance program, shows that losses from drought and flooding were to blame for nearly three-quarters of all crop insurance claims paid to farmers and ranchers between 2001 and 2015.

Farmers are adopting conservation practices, and policy support is growing

For example, earlier this year researchers at Iowa State University released the results of their 2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, which asked farmers across the state about conservation practices they used between 2013 and 2015. Nearly half (44 percent) reported an increase in the use of practices to improve soil health, with 20 percent reporting they’d increased their use of cover crops.

Meanwhile, the National Farmers Union (NFU), which represents family farmers and ranchers across the country, has become increasingly vocal about the need for USDA programs and research to help farmers build soil health and cope with climate change. And taxpayer advocates have lent their voice to the call stronger requirements for on-farm conservation as a condition of participating in the federal crop insurance program (so-called conservation compliance). A number of states have undertaken healthy soil initiatives, and some observers expect soil health to get more attention in this Farm Bill, as it should.

Congress: Don’t ask farmers to do the impossible

To recap: farm conservation works, farmers want to do it, and we all need more of it to cope with a changing climate and the floods, droughts, and escalating costs it will bring. So why wouldn’t Congress invest more?

As usual, budget-cutting fever is the problem. The Trump administration’s proposed USDA budget reductions shocked farmers and their allies in Congress last spring, cowing even the powerful Republican chair of the Senate agriculture committee, who warned that the 2018 Farm Bill will need to “do more with less.” That’s a silly thing to say, of course…with most things in life, doing more requires, well, more. For farm conservation, that means financial incentives and technical assistance for more farmers and more acres, along with more monitoring to ensure that it’s getting results.

That’s why UCS joined with NFU and two dozen other organizations in outlining our collective conservation priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill. These include a substantial increase in funding for USDA conservation programs including CSP, along with additional monitoring and evaluation of outcomes, better enforcement of conservation compliance, and improvements in the federal crop insurance program to remove barriers to conservation.

As Congress debates the Farm Bill in the coming months, UCS will be urging them to see farm conservation programs for what they are—critical programs to help farmers stay profitable today while preventing pollution, improving resilience, and avoiding more costly problems down the line.

In short, an excellent investment in our future.

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