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Congress Should Reward Farmers Who Are Good Stewards

Oklahoma is facing its worst drought since the Dust Bowl.  A historic drought is also gripping Texas and surrounding southern states.  Floods have ravaged America’s heartland, and we’re discovering unsustainable levels of soil erosion in Corn Belt states. On a larger scale, we see an alarming loss of crop and livestock biodiversity, a decline of bees and other pollinators, and expanding ocean dead-zones. Now more than ever, our nation should promote agricultural conservation measures and sustainable farming systems.

But Congress is threatening once again to slash the only programs that support farmers who protect our water, soil, and the biodiversity on which our nation’s productivity depends.

The timing could not be worse.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a variety of US Department of Agriculture-supported conservation practices, requirements, and incentives were effective in reversing high levels of soil erosion.  In recent years, relatively high soy and corn prices have given farmers incentive to expand planting onto marginal lands.  The promise of high profits, and a perverse federal commodity subsidy system that rewards intensive mono-cropping, is just too good to resist.  New research by scientists at Iowa State University finds that topsoil in some locations is disappearing 10 to 50 times faster than it can be replaced – and severe rainstorms are playing a large role in the increasing erosion. Erosion and polluted runoff on farmland washes away soils, fertilizers, pesticides and manure. In the Midwest, this runoff will eventually be discharged into the Mississippi River.

Cutting modest farm conservation programs today is reckless and irresponsible. It is unfair to farmers, to future generations, and is bad for the long-term economic health of our nation.

This week the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is joining with organizations representing millions of Americans committed to the conservation of our water, air, land, productive soils, oceans, fish and wildlife, and the industries and rural communities these resources support.  Together, we will ask the Senate to say “NO” to these short-sighted cuts.

The extreme cuts target programs that have helped farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners to voluntarily protect and restore natural habitat on millions of acres and reduce soil erosion and other impacts of farming. The Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and Wetlands Reserve Program are already oversubscribed with a long waiting list of farmers wanting to implement conservation systems.  Indeed, demand for enrollment in these programs routinely exceeds the funds available, even without any cuts.  There are over 1,000,000 acres waiting to be enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), and in 2010 alone, the program helped to restore 120,000 acres of wetlands. Applications for the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program often outstrip available funds by two to three times. 

Conservation spending has had tremendous success on a very limited budget. In particular, spending on protecting natural resources produces a substantial number of jobs and economic opportunities across the US; just ask the fishing store owners and bed and breakfast owners in western Wisconsin who depend on clean streams to attract over $1.1 billion annually in the region. 

Washington, DC is understandably focused on efforts to address the budget deficit. But so far they have overlooked spending on commodity programs as a target for cuts.  Despite comparativly high farm income, we continue to spend $5 billion a year on direct payments for farmers and landowners without regard to need or even crop price levels. 

If you want to protect our natural resources for future generations, now is the time to weigh in. Unfairly slashing conservation programs a second time, while completely ignoring outdated subsidies and abuse, is foolish policy and exceedingly unwise.

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Brenna Norton

Brenna Norton works on grassroots outreach and organizing efforts for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) leading up to the 2012 Farm Bill. She has worked and volunteered for a wide range of nonprofits, campaigns, and in a Senate committee office.

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