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Conservation programs need greater focus

Given funding challenges and inefficient program priorities and focus, can we solve soil erosion and water quality issues?

It’s true that government conservation programs have helped improve soil erosion and water quality through better practices implemented on farms. But at the current improvement pace, these voluntary programs with budget constraints will not reach huge water quality goals in many watershed and nutrient reduction programs underway in numerous states.

University of Illinois researcher Laura Gentry says the nutrient reduction strategy will only achieve 6 to 8% of water quality goals. Long-time conservationist and Agren founder Tom Buman writes in ‘The Numbers Don’t Add Up’…“If every farmer uses all the in-field nitrogen management techniques (the 4Rs), scientists project that we may reduce nitrogen loading by 6% to 15%. Unfortunately, 15% reduction doesn’t even come close to the 45% reduction in nitrogen loading expected by every state.”

A recent Choices magazine issue on water quality challenges caught my eye, with a piece called “Conservation Programs Can Accomplish More with Less by Improving Cost-Effectiveness,” written by Marc Ribaudo, USDA Chief of the Conservation and Environmental Branch of the Economic Research Service.

The writer outlines how voluntary conservation programs like EQIP, CSP, RCPP, CRP, ACEP and CTA create challenges to improve water quality in their current structure. Specifics vary by program, even within programs, as states and even counties can establish resource priorities.

Sure, we all know greater efficiency is needed in most any government program. But how?

Sub-watershed and farmer field focus?

It’s great that farmers volunteer for programs that help pay to implement practices in their fields to reduce erosion and improve water quality.

Every acre helps. But at what cost?

Unfortunately, even if we target the most impaired watersheds and streams, how can these voluntary programs focus on fields causing the greatest nutrient losses—in order to increase both water quality improvement and program cost efficiencies?

If key farmers don’t volunteer for programs (and get accepted for funding) in a targeted watershed, how can cost efficiencies and progress be obtained?

Case in point about field focus: Of the 342 drainage tiles monitored by the Iowa Soybean Association last year, 17% of those contributed 50% of the total nitrate loss. Similarly, the article in Choices cites research in the Mississippi River basin where an estimated 10% of the cropland contributes 30% of the entire nitrogen load.

Ribaudo states that collecting the information necessary to effectively target conservation is another cost component that must be considered when evaluating the overall benefits of a targeting program.

Rented land, absentee landowner challenges

Another large issue is rented land, which can be as high as 59% of the cropland in some states like Iowa. Neither farmer nor landlord (especially absentee landowners) are usually willing to invest money in conservation practices for long-term gain when many leases are short term. Also, absentee landlords don’t understand possible investment gains, especially when such practices are not often a component of judging land market value. So, how can we expect either party to bear financial burdens, especially in times of low commodity market prices, when even a profit is difficult?

Along with greater targeting efforts, Ribaudo examines other possibilities:

  • Additionality: Offer conservation payments only for practices/projects that farmers would not normally adopt, like terraces and buffers, that have high implementation costs and/or low private benefits.
  • Auctions: Facilitate bidding competition among farmers to achieve greater environmental benefit at lower cost.
  • Performance-based Payments: Base financial assistance on performance (such as amount of nutrient loss reduced) rather than on a portion of implementation costs. Tom Buman writes about that here.
  • Compliance Incentives: Expand USDA compliance provisions to cover nutrient management (meet a minimum standard; be enforced) to be eligible for federal farm program benefits.
  • Community Conservation: Use Extension outreach to engage all farmers in an impaired watershed to work on solutions as a group. Neighbor to neighbor exchange of information and peer pressure can be a strong incentive.

In summary, Ribaudo writes that “weighing the costs of such investments against the potential long-term economic gains of improved program cost-effectiveness can help chart a course of action.”

Will the new Farm Bill chart a better course of action?

I do see is hope, and we write about farmers who value conservation and profit from improving their soil, stopping erosion and reducing sediment and nutrient loss in their fields.

In Tom Buman’s blog, “Random Acts of Conservation,” he hits the nail on the head in his opening sentence: “Farmers will continue to fall short of achieving water quality targets unless we, as conservationists, get serious about precision conservation. We simply cannot expect random acts of conservation to carry the day.”

Buman’s company, Agren, has developed numerous tools to help place targeted conservation practices for greater benefit. Check out the company’s new ConservationAnalyzer, designed to give farmers and advisors a quick way to evaluate conservation alternatives field by field to determine the most bang for the buck. And here’s a beta version so you can dig into it.

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