By Larry Clemens
Photographs by Bill Marr
One of the most valuable lessons I learned growing up on a farm in Indiana was the importance of taking care of our land and water. We raised cows, pigs and chickens, and we leased the rest of the property to our neighbors, who grew corn, soybeans and wheat.
Farming is not just about what happens when you put a seed into the soil; it’s also about everything you have to do to prepare for that moment, to ensure that your land remains fertile and productive season after season. Being a farmer, in other words, is about being rooted in a place. The land is your home, and you want to protect it.
That’s one of the reasons why, when I first started working for The Nature Conservancy in the 1990s, I knew that our conservation success depended on productive collaborations with farmers. Now that I direct TNC’s North America agriculture program, that is even more the case: Nearly 900 million acres, or about 50 percent of land in the lower 48 states, is cropland, rangeland or pasture. With our help, farmers can play a vital role in supporting wildlife and preserving clean water and air.
A LEGACY OF TREES: Judy Wilson and her family walk through her farmland in Fulton County, Kentucky, with a neighbor’s soybean field on the right and the conservation area on the left, planted with bottomland hardwoods that can tolerate seasonal flooding. © Bill Marr/The Nature Conservancy
You may have never heard about the U.S. Farm Bill, and if you have, you probably never thought of it as a force for conservation. Yet it represents the largest federal policy that shapes how we manage private lands. In fact, the first farm bill was created in the 1930s on the heels of the unprecedented environmental disaster known as the Dust Bowl.
In the early 20th century, as farmers moved west into the Great Plains states, they replaced native prairie grasses with vast fields of wheat, which was not as well-adapted to survive on marginal lands without irrigation. A series of dry years led to widespread crop failures, and massive dust storms turned the sky black as soils were blown as far east as the Statue of Liberty.
The first farm bill, known as the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, did something revolutionary: It paid farmers not to cultivate some of their land. Two years later, Congress created the Soil Conservation Service to prevent another Dust Bowl by helping farmers adopt such practices as terracing their fields and planting drought-resistant plants to reduce erosion. The most recent farm bill provided nearly $60 billion over 10 years toward conservation. TNC partners with many farmers and ranchers to help them deploy the federally supported conservation measures, such as restoring wetlands, planting cover crops to enrich soils and planting hedgerows for pollinators. As the 2018 Farm Bill begins to take shape, we are working on Capitol Hill to ensure it will continue to support programs that provide for sustainable agriculture and safeguard biodiversity at the same time.
In the past, farm bills have helped us incrementally improve agricultural practices, and this year we’d like the bill to establish hard targets that allow us to meet the goals laid out in our 2025 soil health roadmap. Soils are the foundation for life. They not only support food production but also help filter water, trap carbon dioxide and sustain one-quarter of the world’s biodiversity. Unfortunately, over the past century we’ve lost as much as 60 percent of the organic matter in our soils. Soils with ample organic matter—compost, basically—require less irrigation and are critical for keeping farmland productive and increasing a crop’s resiliency in the face of drought.
By 2025, we’d like 50 percent of the soy, wheat and corn crops around the country to be managed for optimal soil health. One simple way that farmers can prevent the loss of soils is by planting cover crops, such as rye, over the fall and winter when soils would otherwise be barren. This technique not only locks down soils, protecting them from wind and erosion, but also helps keep nutrients in place for next year’s crop and adds organic matter back into the soil. To that end, we teach farmers about the benefits of cover crops and help them apply for the financial support that the farm bill offers. Over the next five years, we would like to see the farm bill help farmers adopt soil health and nutrient management practices like cover crops on 25 million acres of land, a target that will help us meet our goal of preventing 116 million metric tons of soil from washing away every year.
"Being a farmer ... the land is your home, and you want to protect it."
The farm bill also needs to protect clean, abundant sources of fresh water. One way to do this is through programs like the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which was created under the 2014 Farm Bill. Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of water consumption in the United States. The RCPP supports public-private partnerships that find local solutions to natural resource challenges, including issues with water quality and conservation, as well as flood prevention, resilience during drought, soil conservation and more.
One of our priorities for the new farm bill is further protecting water quality. Nutrient runoff from farms, for instance, contributes to surpluses in places like the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and the mouth of the Mississippi River. When nutrients enter natural waterways, they can fuel algae explosions that deplete oxygen from the water and create ecological “dead zones.” In fact, a toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie forced the city of Toledo to rely on bottled water in 2014.
We have made significant gains in this area in past years, and plan to reduce nutrient loading into our waterways by 20 percent by 2025. We’ve joined forces with fertilizer companies to teach farmers about the “4Rs”: a science-based approach to apply “the Right Source of Nutrients at the Right Rate and Right Time in the Right Place.” The program now influences how fertilizers are applied on nearly 3 million acres of working land in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan, and it is growing rapidly with the support of farm bill programs that have, for instance, helped us protect the water quality of Fish Creek, a stream that flows into the St. Joseph River in Ohio. The creek is home to three species of endangered mussels, including the white cat’s paw pearly mussel, which is found nowhere else on Earth.
The farm bill also helps us protect watersheds by paying farmers who restore wetlands on their property. These wetlands act as natural filters, giving downstream water users a cleaner source of fresh water. In the lower Mississippi Valley, for instance, farm bill funding has helped us and our partners restore 700,000 acres of marginal farmlands on floodplains back to forest and wetlands, supporting the recovery of black bears in the hardwood bottomlands of Louisiana.
Finally, the farm bill provides direct support to land conservation through easements, where farmers agree to permanently set aside portions of their lands for conservation. This year, farm bill payments to landowners who are protecting grasslands, forests and wetlands were cut in half to $250 million a year. We want that number restored to $500 million per year for the next 10 years.
For more than a quarter century, The Nature Conservancy has worked hand in hand with farmers to support sustainable food production, and the farm bill is a crucial piece of this relationship. I still have a modest farm in Indiana, and I owe it to the federal government for helping me dedicate a part of the farm to conservation. What happens on my property, I realize, affects all of us.
Larry Clemens is The Nature Conservancy’s agriculture program director for North America and closely coordinates with the U.S. Government Relations team on TNC’s farm bill policy agenda.