On October 17, a massive dust storm hit Lubbock, Texas, adding to already significant agricultural and environmental devastation across the South this year. That same day, leaders of the U.S. House and Senate Agriculture Committees recommended cuts to the federal Farm Bill, including its conservation programs.
"While it's true we all need to do our part to help put our fiscal house in order, this storm should show why these cuts can't all come from conservation and why it's important that we keep a focus on natural resource protection on working farm and ranch land unless we want to see a new Dust Bowl," Joe Parker, president of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, said in a statement in October.
The Dust Bowl actually helped spur development of the first incarnations of the Farm Bill in the 1930s. In addition to funds to keep farmers afloat after their losses, the legislation also helped them avert future disaster by promoting more sustainable agricultural practices, such as maintaining patches of forests to protect soil and crops from the wind -- a strategy that offers additional benefits for wildlife and water quality.
As HuffPost reported over the last couple weeks, the Farm Bill that faces renewal in 2012 is a broad piece of legislation, with programs that influence everything from the cost of corn to how easily people can access carrots and cabbage. And while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Park Service do a lot to protect the environment, the bill constitutes the largest source of federal investment in private lands in the U.S.
Of course, the Farm Bill conservation programs have evolved a lot over the last 80-plus years. (The entire bill grew from 24 pages in 1933 to the latest version's 663 pages, put into effect in 2008.) The 1985 bill was the first to have a section devoted to conservation. "Thankfully conservation has been on an upward trajectory, and has become one of the larger pieces of the Farm Bill pie," David Degennaro, legislative and policy analyst at the Environmental Working Group, told The Huffington Post. "But it's looking like we're definitely going to see a reduction in conservation funding, and that's really misguided."
"We need conservation programs now more than ever," he said.
Approximately 40 percent of land in the U.S. is used for agriculture of some form or another, and plowing, grazing and other activities can be hard on the land. But the choice of where to grow what crops and with which tools can determine how much farming alters the soil, displaces wildlife, contaminates water or reduces the environment's natural ability to buffer against floods and drought.
As opposed to a monoculture, a diverse mix of crops or livestock generates greater ecological benefits, including more natural predators to combat insect infestations. Plus, if it is a bad year for apples, for example, a farmer can fall back on his sheep or lettuce.
Some experts suggest that limiting industrial food animal production could go a long way to reduce contamination of the air, water and soil. "While the Farm Bill provides relatively little direct support for this industry, the indirect support is substantial, most importantly the fact that it supplies the industry with below-cost animal feed," said Roni Neff, research and policy director at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for a Livable Future.
"We as taxpayers get a lot of out of ensuring the protection of the soil, water and species," said Dan Imhoff, co-founder of Watershed Media. "But the market doesn't pay you to take care of your land. It simply pays you for the crops."
The Farm Bill attempts to make up for some of this omission of the market. One redress is through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land, such as areas most in danger of erosion or flooding, from production.
The agriculture committees' recent recommendation to the super committee, which failed to reach a budget decision before their deadline last month, lowered the amount of land that farmers can set aside through the CRP. Of more significance to the environment, experts suggest, is that while farmers may have had a financial incentive to participate in the program a decade or two ago, the recent surge in grain prices -- driven in large part by the demand for corn ethanol -- has swayed many farmers to put their land back into production.
"Farmers now have more incentive to plow under native prairie or wetlands," said Degennaro, adding that this push to use every available inch for corn often requires the use of more pesticides and fertilizers.
"People feel foolish not to go to max," added Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
Dave White, chief of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), told HuffPost that he plans to work with land owners who intend to exit the CRP to find green alternatives to simply plowing under their land, including preferential enrollment in other conservation programs under the bill.
An array of current programs defray the costs for crop and environmental protections, such as fences to keep cows (and their manure) out of waterways, or for education in pesticide-free crop management.
Mark Doyle, head of development management for Fishkill Farms in Hopewell JCT, New York, has received help from the Farm Bill and hopes for more in the future. He is working on plans for a facility to store and mix farm chemicals. "The better job we do of that, the less likelihood of it ever getting into the waterways," he told HuffPost. "Taking care of our resources -- water being chief amongst them -- is of paramount importance to the entire population, not just farmers."
In Claryville, N.Y., Conor Crickmore is waiting on the new Farm Bill to know if he will get funding for a new irrigation system. The owner of Neversink Farm says it would be "designed to take conservation and run-off into account."
Even with the funds available today, however, many of the farmers hoping to participate in these voluntary programs are turned away. In California, more than half of farmers who apply for programs typically can't get access due to the lack of funding, said Jeanne Merrill, policy director for the California Climate and Agriculture Network.
On the other hand, farmers who accept certain government subsidies, including direct payments, are currently required to maintain some basic conservation practices. In the new Farm Bill, however, expanded crop insurance is expected to replace direct payments. Degennaro and other environmental advocates are concerned because qualification for crop insurance doesn't currently include the compulsory conservation components, and they warn that unless the safety net is coupled with compliance with risk-reducing measures, farmers may indulge in riskier behavior and greater environmental damage may result.
Overall, through a series of Conservation Effects Assessment Projects around the country, the USDA's NRCS is finding that Farm Bill conservation programs pay off. "In the Chesapeake Bay, if we didn't have it, erosion and sediment would be 50 percent worse than it is now," said NRCS's White. "We've seen the same thing in the Upper Mississippi and the Great Lakes."
But White noted that there's still a lot more to be done. To continue to tackle environmental challenges, his team's findings suggest, farmers need a combination of approaches, such as pairing terraces with nutrient management, to solve problems without exacerbating others.
"If program funding is cut, then we face the loss of ecosystem benefits, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, billions and billions of dollars of lost revenue in tourism and fisheries, and millions of acres of wildlife," added Degennaro. "There is a lot at stake for conservation, beyond just doing right thing."
Experts suggest that the dust storm that pounded Lubbock in October could be a harbinger of things to come.
"Even though the Lubbock area experienced a bad dust storm, without established conservation practices in place, such storms would be more frequent, more destructive and more widespread," Salvador Salinas, Texas state conservationist for the NRCS, said in a statement.
The third of a series looking at how the next Farm Bill could affect the food system, the environment and public health.