Hugh Hammond Bennett, the father of the modern soil conservation movement, wrote in 1943: “Conservation farming put first things first by attending to the needs of the soil — by seeing to it that the starting-off place, the base, is put into sound health and kept that way. Any other approach, no matter what it may be, always has and always must lead eventually to agricultural disaster.”
What emerged from Bennett’s writing were federal programs designed to protect the health of America’s farmland. Their goal was to keep soil healthy and ensure that agriculture was economically sound and environmentally beneficial.
Since Bennett’s time, a variety of approaches to soil and water conservation have resulted in better stewardship of land and water resources associated with farming. One of the most successful is conservation compliance.
With conservation compliance, farmers apply basic conservation practices to attend to the needs of the soil and wetlands in exchange for federal assistance. As a result, soil is protected from erosion, important wetlands are preserved, and taxpayers’ investments are protected through the combination of sound agricultural and conservation policy.
It’s an approach that has produced results.
Throughout its 25-year history, conservation compliance has reduced soil erosion by 295 million tons annually. To put it another way, that’s enough soil to cover the entire area of the National Mall, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building, with 1,100 feet of soil every year.
Conservation compliance keeps soil in the field where it belongs and out of our rivers and streams. It also keeps farmers productive.
It’s undeniable that the farm safety net is shifting away from direct subsidies toward a risk-based system in which federal crop insurance is the base. With the removal of direct payments from the farm safety net and associated conservation measures, we risk taking a large step backward from the progress made in protecting our nation’s fragile soils and wetlands.
Fortunately, we can maintain these conservation benefits well into the future by providing a sound farm and natural resource safety net by re-linking conservation compliance and crop insurance.
Attaching conservation compliance to crop insurance premium assistance will continue the public benefits of protecting fragile soils and wetlands in exchange for a taxpayer supported federal crop insurance program.
Conservation compliance is a common-sense crop insurance reform measure that has bipartisan support in the House and Senate — and the support of farm, conservation and crop insurance groups alike.
American Farmland Trust and many other partners were successful in securing bipartisan support in the Senate-passed farm bill to include conservation compliance as part of the federal crop insurance program. We didn’t have the same success in the House.
As House and Senate negotiators iron out differences between their two versions of the bill, conservation compliance is one of the major issues to be worked out.
If Hugh Hammond Bennett were here today, he would see how his ideas have helped improve soil health. That happened because of deliberate and decisive actions taken by policy makers over the years to conserve healthy soil on America’s farms.
It’s imperative that the House and Senate farm bill conferees continue that tradition of stewardship well into the future by seeing to it that the starting-off place is at the base, our nation’s soil and wetlands, and by re-linking conservation compliance to federal crop insurance assistance.
Andrew McElwaine is president and CEO of the American Farmland Trust.