2015 Earth Day from an agriculture perspective

Since 1970, an annual event called Earth Day has been held in late April across the United States. This event has been a time for all U.S. citizens to reflect on our country’s environmental resources, and what we can do individually, and as communities, to help enhance our environment for the next generation. April 22 is Earth Day in 2015. In recent years, it has become quite common to point the finger of blame at agriculture production and farmers for many of the environmental issues we are facing in the United States. However, in reality, farmers have been some of the best environmental stewards in the U.S. in the past few decades.

The environmental advancements in agriculture production in recent decades have been accomplished with a relatively small investment of federal tax dollars through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and other programs. There have also been numerous state and local farm-related conservation and environmental initiatives through Soil and Water Conservation Districts, wildlife organizations, and other initiatives, all of which have been heavily supported by farmers.

Consider the following environmental facts from USDA regarding CRP:

  • As of Feb. 28, 2015, there are currently 24.29 million acres enrolled in the CRP program, representing 651,246 contracts on 365,617 farms across the U.S. The CRP program was initiated in 1985. The 2014 Farm Bill reduced the maximum acres in CRP from 32 million to 24 million. 
  • U.S. farm owners have restored over 1.9 million acres of wetlands, and have installed over 1.75 million acres of conservation buffers, through the CRP program, which has protected millions acres of stream banks along rivers and streams.
  • Since 1986, it is estimated that the CRP program has reduced total soil erosion in the U.S. by over 8 billion tons of soil, including a reduction of 308 million tons of soil in 2012.
  • The CRP program is the largest carbon sequestration program on private lands in the U.S. In 2012, the CRP program sequestered the equivalent of 42 million metric tons of carbon dioxide gas from the atmosphere, which is comparable to taking 9.6 million automobiles off the road in a given year.
  • Each year, CRP keeps more than 600 million pounds of nitrogen and more than 120 million pounds of phosphorus from flowing into rivers, streams, and lakes in the U.S.
  • In Iowa alone, there are 75 CRP constructed wetlands projects, which are designed to intercept and treat water from underground agricultural drainage systems. USDA estimated that these projects removed approximately 900.000 pounds of nitrogen from agricultural drainage water.
  • As of 2015, U.S. farm owners placed 4.54 million acres in the Continuous CRP, and 350,000 acres into the Farmable Wetlands program. Much of the land enrolled in these programs has been dedicated to enhancing the nation’s wildlife habitat, which has resulted in increased populations of ducks, pheasants, and other wildlife species in many areas.
  • The State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) is a special CRP, implemented cooperatively with States, to identify priority wildlife habitat for threatened species. There are currently 983,189 acres in 36 States enrolled in the SAFE program.
  • Besides the standard CRP, there are currently 45 Conservation Reserve Enhancement Programs (CREP) in targeted watersheds in 33 States, involving 1.22 million acres, which has generated considerable additional State and private funds for conservation efforts through CRP.
  • In addition to the CRP, farmers plant hundreds of thousands of trees each year through Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) tree planting programs.

The National Pork Board authorized a research study to compare the carbon footprint and resource use of the U.S. swine production in 2009, compared to 1959. The study found that modern pork production in 2009 had the following environmental advantages compared to 1959, on the basis of “per 1,000 pounds of pork produced” :

  • 35% lower carbon footprint in 2009 than in 1959.
  • 2009 pork production uses 41% less water than in 1959.
  • 78% less land needed in 2009 than in 1959.
  • 33% reduction in the amount of feed required in 2009, compared to 1959.
  • An overall 50% reduction in the use of natural resources and environmental impact in 2009, compared to 1959.

There is still a lot to be accomplished to manage potential water quality, global warming and other environmental issues; however, we can rest assured that farmers and the agriculture industry will do their part to find solutions. Much of the recent environmental focus related to agriculture has been on improving water quality through reductions in soil erosion and agricultural runoff, including changes in agricultural drainage practices. Properly designed agricultural drainage and tiling systems, including properly designed and constructed buffer strips, are critical to maintaining optimum productivity on much of the nation’s highest quality farmland.

Agricultural research and science has long studied water quality and soil science, resulting in many of today’s agricultural practices and programs, which have enhanced water quality and the environment. There is a need to continue private and public funding for research efforts in soil science and water quality initiatives in order to design even more effective systems for the future.

Farmers and the agriculture industry need to be part of the solution to determine agriculture’s future role in environmental enhancement. Finding a proper balance between the goals and objectives of all parties that are involved will ultimately lead to enhanced water quality, wildlife habitat improvement, and other overall environmental benefits, while maintaining a robust U.S. agricultural production level.  Agriculture research and science, together with the producers that farm the land, will continue to look at new and innovative ways to better manage nutrients, reduce soil erosion, and improve water quality, as well as ways to enhance production to feed an ever-increasing world population.

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