What landowners say about conservation: A guest piece by Beth Hoffman

This piece is reprinted with permission from Beth Hoffman, author of Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America. Find Beth’s blog, In The Dirt, here.

Somewhere around the turn of the new year I sent out an email that I was looking for projects.  I wrote to a few people in my online Rolodex saying that I needed intellectually stimulating work that would allow me to use my research and writing skills. The dreariness of winter was getting to me and taking care of livestock didn’t feel like I was utilizing the skills I had worked 25 years to obtain. I also desperately needed human interaction, even if it was only via Zoom.

A few weeks later Teresa Opheim of the Climate Land Leaders (CLL) came to me with a project idea. She wanted to better understand how much her members were paying for conservation projects they were taking on and if the government was helping them financially. Ultimately, Teresa explained, CLL was interested in what to advocate for in the Farm Bill, a massive, every-five-years-or-so piece of legislation that dictates almost every aspect of agriculture in the US.

Teresa knows one of the main problems her members have is that conservation is expensive. Extending a waterway to stop massive erosion on the land and halt water pollution, one of the CLL members told me, will cost them $6,000. But she will only be reimbursed for half of the project. And while government programs help people buy things like prairie seed, I learned, it does not pay for mowing and maintenance the seeds need in order to establish themselves. Likewise for trees—you can’t expect a young tree to survive and thrive without mulching, watering and mowing the weeds around it. But those tasks are not supported by US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs.

I learned quickly from the interviews that in addition to the expenses, the rigidity of programs and the ways they are structured often don’t support true conservation.

“A couple of years ago, the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) people said that, in order for me to keep this one six-acre chunk in CRP, I would have to cut out all the trees and spray Round-Up on all of it, and then replant it with some very fancy wildflower seeds. And I kind of went nuts. Those trees are beautiful. It’s six acres – I mean, it’s not nothing…So I got ahold of the conservation officer in town, and I said, “Can you go out and take a look…. if you think it’s junk, and it needs to go, and it’s not providing habitat for animals and plant life, I will get rid of it.” He went out and he said, “It’s perfect. There are pheasants. There’s grouse. There’s deer. It’s an oasis for the animals. Don’t cut it down.” So then, I had to pay all the penalties to pull it out of the CRP plan before it was time.”

Programs are often arbitrary, the members reminded me again and again, citing similar experiences where what they were told to do was contrary to their goals—goals like encouraging a diversity of species, promoting water retention, and stopping erosion. Even when landowners begged to be able to do something that made more sense, time and time again they were denied.

“I’ve heard the line 100 times – “I really like what you’re trying to do. It’s the right way to do it. But our policies don’t allow you to do that.”  I work with a lot of young people at FSA [Farm Service Agency] that are passionate about working lands, conservation and restoration of wetlands and prairies. And these are people who are educated, they know what they’re doing. And they work with farmers like me, who have done a lot of these projects and have learned some things over the years. But I so often run into this, “That would be the right way to do it. But you know, I can’t let you do that.'”

To reconcile this issue, one member suggested the idea of having outcome-based programming in which the goal, not the strategies, would be the focus. Say a landowner wanted to plant a healthy prairie. The first step in an outcome-based program would be an assessment of the current situation:

  • What is the condition of the soil right now?
  • What crops have been grown in the last three years?
  • Were herbicides used?
  • Is the land bare or overgrown with trees/brush or grasses?

    Beth Hoffman

Based on the answers and the conservation goals, the landowner—along with USDA employees, local non-profits, and ideally, the extension agents from the nearby land grant university who should be studying best practices—would craft a plan for the farm.

Yes, this takes time and expertise on the part of the USDA agents, many of whom currently do not have the time or knowledge needed. But those CLL members who had helpful USDA agents, interested and trained in conservation, seemed far more likely to know about programs and to get people to enroll in them.

“We’re lucky we have a fantastic NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) office and so, especially when I am trying to learn these programs, what I need to do and the paperwork, they’ve been very helpful. I had our NRCS person come out when I was installing the windbreak and was chatting with him about options. And he looked at the area and we got it all figured out. And he said, Hey, would you ever be interested in this EQIP program where you do cover crops? And I said, ‘yeah, definitely.'”

In other areas (like the county where I live), few if any employees understand why conservation is important or how to do it, which makes it hard for landowners to find the right programs. Organic farmers are often at a disadvantage as few NRCS agents know enough about how to farm organically to make recommendations.

“I sat down with my NRCS officer and talked with him about the programs… we just emailed each other…but he’s never been out to the farm….then, that cornfield yielded 20 bushels less than the cornfield across the street that didn’t have a cover crop. So can you explain to me why that happened? [No] he is not arriving to have the conversation…But, you know, it’s like, this guy’s responsible for like four counties or something. And I think I’m probably the only organic farmer that he works with.”

CLL members generally agree that “carrots” that pay farmers for using cover crops or planting trees or prairie are wonderful ways to help keep costs in check and make projects more doable. But disincentivizing bad practices that create erosion, pollute streams or destroy habitat by excluding offending farmers from crop insurance and other programs could also be a powerful tool in moving agriculture in the right direction.

Just as important though, is the desperate need to fully fund the offices responsible for translating policy in Washington DC to results on the farm. Adequate staffing (often held up by cumbersome hiring processes) and training would have a huge impact on conservation in the next Farm Bill.

[I want to note here that Department of Ag Secretary Vilsack recently announced that many conservation programs will be offered through service providers, which I don’t think excuses our agencies from building up the improved capacity to be able to provide their own programs to the public.]

Thank you Climate Land Leaders for your insight and for taking the time to talk with me. These interviews helped shape my thoughts on the upcoming Farm Bill (and filled my need for human contact).

Read the Climate Land Leaders Farm Bill Platform here.