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A Time for Greater Conservation

A Time for Greater Conservation

American Farmland Trust president Jon Scholl shares his vision for a better way to keep U.S. agriculture humming.

Editor's Note: This Web exclusive was written by John Scholl, president, American Farmland Trust. The opinions expressed are his and provided here as perspective for Farm Futures readers.

Ever since the first farm bills enacted to counter effects of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, the federal government has been involved in production agriculture and conservation.

However, it wasn’t until the air was smoggy and our rivers were on fire in the 70s, that conservation programs started to get due attention. And while the funding for conservation has risen over the years, I’d like to look at where we are today in terms of environmental challenges as we go into the next farm bill.

Jon Scholl is AFT President and a partner in a family farm in McLean County, Ill. He prepared this commentary exclusively for Farm Futures.

I don’t think anyone could have imagined that as we enter this cycle, our country would be in such a financial pickle, proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill would be flying across the internet daily, and even formerly stalwart supporters of Title 1 programs would be acknowledging their demise.

So what are some of the challenges facing agriculture today and in the next 30 years?

* Ramping up production to feed the projected world population of nine or 10 billion people;

* Water quality issues in the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, decreasing water supplies in the Ogallala aquifer, and across other western states;

* More rapidly changing weather patterns and extremes;

* Undoubtedly the continued loss of farmland to unplanned growth;

and that’s just naming a few worries we face in production agriculture.

In examining these challenges, one thing is constant in all the solutions we can conjure up —farmland. Agriculture’s ability to meet these challenges will depend on the availability of high quality, productive land and the quality and quantity of the water that lies on or beneath it.

And as the pace of making legislative and regulatory decisions becomes more frenetic -- and takes place under greater financial constraints -- it becomes very clear that the decisions we make today about Title I programs and conservation incentives will impact production for decades.

Crop Insurance Only?

Some of the proposals today call for the elimination of all Title I programs in favor of crop insurance only. We believe that would leave farmers with a risk management system that only protects them for problems that arise one crop-year at a time.

We need an improved revenue-based safety net, such as ACRE, to work in conjunction with crop insurance, so that producers will have the tools they need to cover risks that affect broad sections of the market over a period of several years – risks that even subsidized crop insurance programs find it hard to cover.

A revenue-based program, constructed correctly, also has the benefit of reducing government distortion from the market.  It would remove unintended environmental consequences. Many current safety net programs use target prices, arbitrarily set by Congress, that sometime have the effect of encouraging production on more fragile land. With a revenue-based mechanism, producers are more likely to make planting decisions based on their potential net revenue and not on the need to increase production on land that may not be capable of being farmed sustainably. 

Conservation compliance

There is also the question of conservation compliance. We believe in order to most effectively maintain and protect the quality of our farmland, conservation compliance should apply to the revenue-based program and be re-attached as a condition to receiving subsidized crop insurance.

Yes, reattached. Not everyone will remember the history that conservation compliance was decoupled from crop insurance nearly 14 years after it was first legislated. According to USDA data, there are only a very small percentage of producers (5% of wheat and corn growers — the majority of commodity crop producers) who receive crop insurance assistance but who do not currently participate in Title I programs. Taking this action would only add compliance provisions for a small group of producers while having huge implications for the accountability we show for the investment citizens make to keep our farm economy stable.

There are clearly ways that our government policies and programs can be more efficient and effective, and they must be. However, the proposals that would disproportionately cut working lands conservation programs by 30, 40 or even 50% ignore the challenges production agriculture faces now and in the future. These programs have been chronically under-funded -- as many as three out of four farmers are turned away from conservation programs for lack of funds. Cuts that go too deep now will further hinder our efforts to be good stewards of the resources that make the magnificent productivity of agriculture possible. 

We depend on our farmland, our soil and our water to sustain us. Let’s not miss the opportunity to ensure the health and well being of our natural resources and the viability of the farmers who steward them.

- Jon Scholl is AFT President and a partner in a family farm in McLean County, Ill. He prepared this commentary exclusively for Farm Futures. For more information visit


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