Right now, following the farm bill’s progress seems a lot like watching corn grow. The bill is due for reauthorization and the senators and representatives charged with finding a compromise are under pressure to make progress before Thanksgiving.
The major hurdle to clear right now, and that’s received a fair bit of media attention already, is how much to cut food stamps. But it’s important not to lose sight of what else is at stake. In addition to being the major domestic and foreign food assistance program, and agriculture safety net, the farm bill is also the nation’s largest private lands conservation fund. The House and Senate versions both aim to shrink the bill’s environmental stewardship budget, by $5 billion, or $3.5 billion, respectively.
The rationale for including environmental stewardship in the farm bill goes back to hard lessons learned from the Dust Bowl, when sodbusting and drought collided to create one of America’s worst environmental disasters. Since then, the federal government has offered a slew of programs to incentivize conservation principles like rotating crops, creating wildlife habitat, practicing no-till farming, and controlling fertilizer runoff, to name a few. Farming practices that keep topsoil healthy and intact have helped the land weather droughts more severe than those of the Dirty Thirties without the same catastrophe.
“The whole point of these programs, since the Dust Bowl, is to conserve soil and water so producers don’t lose everything when they get slammed by the drought or a flood,” says Greg Fogel, a senior policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said. Conservation programs aren’t just niceties, they are preventative care for the land and can act as protection again future disasters.
Take New Mexico, for example. It’s been gripped by severe drought for several years. On the Nature Conservancy’s Milnesand Prairie Preserve in eastern New Mexico, a lesser prairie chicken reserve that’s also a working ranch, average annual rainfall is 10 to 18 inches, but between 2010 to 2012 only two to six inches per year fell. It was a grey place for those years, says Tish McDaniel, the Nature Conservancy’s southern shortgrass prairie project coordinator.
To keep grasslands healthy in the long term, and to provide nesting habitat and forage for the rare lesser prairie chicken, it’s important to give the land periodic rests from grazing. That’s especially true during a drought, when turning cows out on stressed rangeland can eventually kill grass rootstocks, exposing the soil, and leading to desertification. That’s one reason why the Nature Conservancy uses rotational grazing at the preserve, and why the farm bill incentivizes it under its Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays ranchers, farmers and foresters to use sound environmental practices on working lands.
Temporarily taking cattle off drought-stressed land for a few months, especially during wildlife nesting or calving season, is probably one of the best conservation actions cattle ranchers can take, according to Kenneth Branch, a resource conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in New Mexico.
Late summer and fall rainfall this year has helped revive the prairie preserve’s grass, but that hasn’t put the Milnesand ranch, or New Mexico, in the clear. “The drought forecast is still incredibly grim,” says McDaniel. “The worst thing any of these producers can do with cattle production is to assume they can start back up,”
In addition to helping ranchers survive drought periods where they may have to sell off cattle to keep from overgrazing, the Conservation Stewardship Program also supports a host of other practices and outcomes like cover cropping, certain kinds of livestock rotation, reducing erosion, managing fertilizer runoff, and even installing technology and infrastructure that help meet conservation goals. It’s a relatively new program, started in 2008, and it now includes more acreage than any other farm bill conservation program.
“I think folks are using the Conservation Stewardship Program more and more to make sure they have measures to conserve water or soil in their land in the event of extended drought and on the flip side, flooding,” says Fogel. Yet the Conservation Stewardship Program is likely to take a hit in the new farm bill, with a 14 percent budget reduction in the Senate version, and a 21 percent drop in the House, according to Fogel.
McDaniel points out that there are a lot of people depending on the farm bill, and she’s concerned about the uncertainty and insecurity the current policy purgatory is creating for farmers, ranchers and the people who work with them. But that’s not the only reason to care about the bill. The massive piece of ag policy also has big implications for conservation. “Grasslands are highly imperiled ecosystems,” she says. “They are not sexy, or romantic, and they are overlooked.”
Sarah Jane Keller is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @sjanekeller.