—by Steve Lekwa
Much has been written about the continuing shift from rural to urban in our society. The number of farms and the families who live on them has been dropping for generations as major urban areas continue to grow. There was a time not so long ago when the majority people could remember growing up on a farm or at least going to visit Grandpa and Grandma on the farm. A human connection to agriculture and the land still existed. There aren’t that many left who can claim even that connection to a farm or agriculture any more. Sadly, as the nation’s connection to farms and rural life continues to disappear, our connection to the land is fading from the national consciousness, as well.
Yet, agricultural operations still occupy the vast majority of private land in much of the country. Because farming and ranching affect so much of the nation’s land, it stands to reason that policies that give direction to those operations will have a profound effect on everything that lives on the land, including us. For most of our lifetimes, the polices that most affect the land have been (and are) found in a series of Federal Farm Bills. Recent harsh winters and wet nesting seasons have been very hard on pheasants, but there’s still some truth when it’s said that pheasant populations are as much a product of federal farm policy as they are the weather. The Farm Bill is supposed to be updated every five years, but Congress has missed that deadline repeatedly with ongoing squabbles that block or delay all kinds of important legislation. It took them 2 ½ extra years to finally get a new Farm Bill passed in February of this year.
The Farm Bill, like all legislation, is full of compromises. Some wished for stronger conservation provisions, but it still includes $28 billion for a variety of conservation programs thanks to the efforts of a strong coalition of conservation and agricultural groups. Those funds will finance programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) that pay farmers not to farm highly erosive land or wetlands and keep those areas in protective perennial vegetation. "Conservation compliance" rules have discouraged conversion of sensitive areas in the past by the threat of withholding farm program benefit payments. There has been a shift in the farm safety net in recent years from benefit payments to federal crop insurance, however, that didn’t have such strong conservation compliance teeth. 1.3 million acres of native grasslands were converted to cropland between 2006 and 2011 when grain prices surged to record highs. That rate of conversion hasn’t been seen since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. Hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands were drained and millions of acres of CRP land were put back into cultivation, too, when CRP payments couldn’t compete with rising grain prices.
The 2014 Farm Bill renewed some wetland protections. Wetlands without adjoining grassy upland nesting cover do little to support waterfowl or upland wildlife reproduction, though. The new Farm Bill also includes a stronger "Sod Saver" provision tied to crop insurance rates that should help protect native grasslands. There is still much to be done throughout the rule making and implementation process, though, to insure that the conservation provisions set out in the Farm Bill achieve their objectives.
Americans may be further removed from the land than ever, but, removed though we may be, we remain heavily affected by provisions of the Federal Farm Bill. The food we eat, at least some of the fiber we wear, some of the fuel we burn, the fish wildlife we enjoy, and the water quality that we depend on are all heavily influenced by federal farm policy. The message is this: No American is very far from the farm, no matter how many generations removed from the land they may be. Sound farm and conservation policies must go forward hand-in-hand if we are to enjoy the quality of life we have come to expect.