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Conservation seen as centerpiece

Making conservation “a centerpiece of farm policy, rather than an afterthought,” would offer “unique advantage for both the public and producers,” says Craig A. Cox, executive vice president of the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

“Farmers and ranchers control how most of our land is used,” he said at the Agricultural Outlook Forum 2001 at Washington. “They are, literally, the most important soil, water, fish, wildlife, and recreational managers in the U.S. That, to me, is what makes farming and ranching truly unique — and truly deserving of special attention in federal policy.”

For the public, such a policy change “would create the opportunity to go beyond pollution prevention and damage control to widespread enhancement of our environment,” Cox says.

Harnessing the management skills of America's farmers and ranchers to become primary agents of enhancing the environment can result in creation of fish and wildlife habitat, produce clean and abundant supplies of water, protect against the risks of climate change, and create recreational opportunities.

“Conservation at the center of farm policy would take us beyond simply helping, or requiring, farmers and ranchers to prevent environmental damage and instead reward them for enhancing the environment — for using their labor and capital to provide environmental goods and services.”

For agriculture, Cox says, such a policy change “would create the opportunity to use conservation to help keep people on the land and to escape some of the contradictions created by current farm policy. The land and its management drive conservation, rather than the amount or kind of commodities produced.

“That means all farmers and ranchers, producing all kinds of commodities in all regions of the country, could participate in environmental enhancement. Conservation could, and should, reach the 92 percent of farms operating 68 percent of the country's acres.”

Environment as ‘niche’

The environment “is a niche market,” Cox says, “but it is one in which every farmer and rancher has a niche. Perhaps most importantly, bringing conservation to the center of farm policy would take us a long way toward creating an agricultural policy out of what increasingly appears to be a limited and contradictory farm policy. It would provide more options for policymakers and producers, instead of attempting to fit an increasingly diverse agricultural sector into a one-size-fits-all subsidy program.

“We could diversify agricultural policy to reflect the needs and unique circumstances of different farming and ranching operations,” says Cox. “We could design a policy that works for the handful of producers who dominate commodity markets and trade, and we could also design a policy that works for all the other producers in whose hands we entrust the care of most our land, water, and wildlife. We could create an agricultural policy that is truly open to all of agriculture and built on a solid foundation — the unique status and responsibility of farmers and ranchers as the caretakers of our land, water, and wildlife.”

To achieve these objectives, Cox contends, “would require us to step outside the current framework of conservation and farm policy and create something new.”

On the conservation side, it would require creation of capacity to deliver technical services and financial aid to producers “on a scale not seen in this country since the 1930s.”

Participants in conservation workshops nationwide have indicated, Cox says, that they want a broad-based stewardship program that would accomplish several objectives:

  1. Reward producers who have been investing in and implementing conservation systems, often without any governmental assistance or financial compensation.

  2. Provide technical services and financial aid to maintain existing conservation systems and habitat, as well as implementing new systems or restoring habitat.

  3. Scale financial rewards to reflect the level of conservation effort and environmental goods and services produced.

  4. Make all agricultural land and all agricultural producers eligible.

  5. Emphasize keeping people on the land by fitting conservation into working farms and ranches rather than by restricting the use of agricultural land.

  6. Address conservation opportunities comprehensively on farms and ranches.

  7. Create “one-stop shopping” through a single conservation planning process, a single application and administrative process, and regulatory assurance.

“Making this vision real will require major investments in our technical services infrastructure, both public and private,” Cox says. And it will require creating within farm policy “a stewardship program that is funded generously enough that it is truly open to all agricultural producers who want to make conservation and resource stewardship a fundamental part of their operations.

“It will,” he says, require moving conservation to the center of farm policy, with funding and attention equivalent to that provided for commodity and risk management policy.”

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