Word from Washington today was that Congress is going to fail to link conservation compliance to federally subsidized crop insurance. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Des Moines Register that a mandatory compliance proposal would be dropped in favor of voluntary programs.
A tour of the countryside this crop season leads me to argue that such a change is a big mistake. In several trips to western Iowa and Nebraska, I saw horrific signs of land abuse. Soil erosion early last spring took the form of unprecedented deep gullies and obvious runoff into creeks and rivers. The drought set these abuses in stone, in the form of poor crops spread across skeletal soils.
Pasture and timber newly converted to row crops fared the worst. Some of the fields even appeared too steep, totally unsafe, for modern farm equipment to operate.
Local sources told me of cases where farmers were basically flipping land--buying pasture, converting it to row crops with a bit of bulldozing, then selling it for a fat premium.
Something is just not working here. In effect, agriculture is supporting its bad actors. No one likes regulation, but all of agriculture is on stage for the abuses of a relative few.
According to Secretary Vilsack, ag leaders on the hill are opposing compliance and pushing a voluntary, incentive-based approach. Good to have conservation funding, but history has proved that carrots don’t work without a stick.
Over the 70 plus years since the Dust Bowl, the biggest conservation gains came after the 1985 farm bill, when conservation compliance was implemented, along with the Sodbuster law and the CRP. When compliance was enforced with some vigor in the mid-1990s, soil erosion on cropland was cut by about 40 percent, one conservation expert, Max Schnepf, told me. As enforcement of the regulation lessened later on, soil erosion rates increased again in many parts of the country, he pointed out.
Why won’t voluntary programs alone work? “There isn’t enough money to encourage action by enough farmers on a scale that will make a difference, and the bad actors in the farm community never have and never will chose to participate voluntarily, even with substantial financial incentives,” Schnepf said.
Farmers themselves seem to be up in the air on the issue. An Agriculture.com poll this summer showed the question of a conservation-crop insurance link to be a toss-up—48% opposed, 41% in favor, 11% uncertain.
One Nebraska farmer reflected the conflicted feelings. He wrote in the Agriculture.com Farm Business Forum: “That's a tough one. On the one hand, I don't know if I like the idea of one more set of paperwork, and more proof of compliance every year, but on the other hand I have seen firsthand newly broken or first-time planted fields that are a total disaster, which never should have been planted to (mostly) corn, simply because they can get it insured cheap and have a guaranteed profit off those acres."
If I can believe my eyes on what’s happening out on the land these days, the compliance-crop insurance link may be the one tool the farm community has right now to keep the bad actors from representing us all. The voluntary approach has yet to prove itself.