A cattleman and a wheat grower were among four people who testified in the hearing 2022 Review of the Farm Bill: Stakeholder Perspectives on Title II Conservation Programs on Sept. 20 in Washington, D.C.
Those testifying were Michael Crowder, president, National Association of Conservation Districts; Nicole Berg, president, National Association of Wheat Growers; Lori Faeth, senior director of Government Relations, Land Trust Alliance; and Shayne Wiese, rancher, on behalf of Iowa Cattlemen's Association and National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
Wiese is a fifth-generation cattle producer from west central Iowa, specializing in producing high quality, productive Hereford bulls for commercial cow-calf producers. Wiese & Sons are advocates for on-farm conservation and have utilized cover crops, Conservation Reserve Program, water filtration buffers, and erosion reduction practices for decades.
“U.S. cattle producers own and manage considerably more land than any other segment of agriculture or any other industry for that matter,” Wiese said. “Cattle producers graze cattle on approximately 666.4 million acres across the United States—nearly one-third of our nation's continental landmass.”
Millions more acres grow hay, feed and food grains—all under cattlemen’s stewardship and private ownership.
“Some of the biggest challenges and threats to our industry come from the loss or conversion of our natural resources,” Wiese said. “The livestock industry is threatened daily by urban encroachment, natural disasters, and government overreach that makes our stewardship harder—if not impossible.”
For Wiese and other cattle producers, conservation programs are one of the most visible and consistently important portions of the farm bill. However, their only nexus to services occurs at local Natural Resources Conservation Service or Farm Service Agency offices.
Even though the Environmental Quality Incentives program is designed to assist producers in implementing conservation practices to enhance the health of grazing lands, improving water quality, improving soil quality and reducing erosion, Wiese isn’t completely sold on it.
“While the intent of EQIP is to make conservation funding and technical assistance accessible to all producers, barriers to entry often disincentivize producers from utilizing NRCS programs,” he said. “Recently, I applied to receive EQIP cost-share funding for a water infrastructure project on my operation. After months of waiting with no approval, I finally gave up and completed the project without assistance from USDA.”
Voluntary conservation programs work because they’re voluntary, according to Wiese.
“Our operation has had success in using USDA conservation programs, but just because this system works for us does not mean it's right for everybody,” he said. “Continuing to fund voluntary conservation programs, while keeping them voluntary, is critical to their continued success. A one-size-fits-all approach that accompanies top-down regulation does not work in the cattle industry.”
Wheat side of it
Berg said conservation is essential for her farming operation.
“Living and farming in the driest area in the world that grows cereal grains—with only 6 inches of rainfall a year—conservation farming helps us maintain soil moisture and efficiently use our natural resources,” she said. “Our farm used several different conservation programs over the years and while we see the benefits of participating in the programs, there are also challenges.”
EQIP helped the family put in a containment fertilizer tank on the farm, allowing them to protect the environment against an accidental spill. Extra storage has also allowed them to manage costs during high fertilizer prices and supply chain issues during the past two years. They also utilized the program to install irrigation water management equipment on their irrigated farmland acres.
Berg sees how EQIP continues to be popular with wheat growers by allowing them to undertake specific conservation practices, develop management plans or utilize the new longer-term incentive payments.
“EQIP has been the most flexible program, allowing growers to utilize one or multiple practices that make sense for their operation,” she said.
CRP remains an important option for growers in Washington state and across the country but can be a controversial option depending upon the area of the country.
“Farmers do not want to compete with the federal government when renting land, and we must make sure that beginning farmers and ranchers have access to affordable land and CRP is often cited as competition for these new farmers,” Berg said.
She believes focusing on enrolling environmentally sensitive, highly erodible land in CRP should allow for the protection of fragile lands at risk of erosion and allowing other lands to be farmed.
Berg said while many of the farm bill conservation programs continue to be popular, less than half of all applications are actually the ones receiving funding.
“Wheat growers are no exception, with more wheat growers seeking assistance through the farm bill conservation programs than can be funded,” she said. “Between fiscal years 2018 and 2021, there were 3,000 valid, applications for EQIP by wheat growers that went unfunded. Over that same period there were over 2,000 valid, applications for CSP by wheat growers that went unfunded.”
Berg believes there is continued demand and a need for voluntary conservation programs within the farm bill.
“But we must make sure that programs provide flexibility and allow growers to maintain economically viable farming operations,” she said.
Crowder said historic funding included in the Inflation Reduction Act has provided farmers with an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen agricultural operations, bolster resilience, reduce harmful emissions and improve the quality of water, land and air.
“It is critical that we work on a bipartisan basis to develop a 2023 farm bill that supports strong and stable conservation policy, helps our producers, and protects the environment for all Americans,” he said. “Farm bill conservation programs are critical to our nation's food security, biodiversity, and the sustainability of our farms, ranches, and forests.”
According to Crowder, this farm bill provides a once in a generation opportunity to strengthen conservation efforts on our working agricultural landscapes.
For Faeth, investments in programs supported by the farm bill are critical.
“These investments provide a comprehensive portfolio of programs enabling our farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to be the best possible caretakers of our soil and water resources while providing food, fiber, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration and clean air,” she said.
Faeth asked those deliberating the 2023 farm bill to consider all the implications of IRA funding for these programs, and she hopes to continue to work in a bipartisan manner to strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of the conservation title programs to benefit our nation's working lands and the private land stewards of these resources.
Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or email@example.com.