As the public gives increased attention to where food is coming from and the effects of agriculture on the environment, such as those depicted in the recent Environmental Working Group report, “Losing Ground,” the issue of conservation policy on farmland gains notoriety and, perhaps, becomes more contentious.

Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, and Environmental Protection Agency Chief, Lisa Jackson, recently toured Iowa agricultural facilities and farms. This visit underscores the various approaches discussed in relation to controlling agriculture’s impact on the environment.

An Eastern Iowa Government article reported State Senator Merlin Bartz, R-Grafton, “encouraged Vilsack to maintain the USDA’s ‘carrot’ approach to soil and water conservation rather than default to the Environmental Protection Agency’s ‘stick’ approach.” The USDA oversees many conservation cost-sharing programs through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) while the EPA is charged with regulating pollution, though agriculture is largely exempt from many federal laws. The Des Moines Register quoted the EPA Chief as stating, “I am ruling out the need for us to move directly to a regulatory mechanism when we have folks stepping up and are willing to do the conservation measures.”

In addition to the “carrots” and “sticks” policies, the use of a market-based approach has gained a good deal of attention in recent years. This approach is often discussed in terms of carbon trading, but other markets have recently developed, including trading for water quality and biodiversity. American Farmland Trust provides resources on water quality markets in the U.S. and the potential role for agriculture. In relation to leased farmland, landowners can, perhaps, utilize such programs to encourage sustainable practices through alternative forms of revenue and play a critical roll in enrollment in such programs.

Further, focus is often on federal programs and regulations, but local and state laws also hold potential for addressing conservation concerns. For instance, the recent Environmental Working Group report, Losing Ground, discusses the need for stricter enforcement of federal conservation compliance laws before farmers and landowners can receive farm program payments, but doesn’t mention the soil loss limit regulations instituted by the Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) that exist in every county in Iowa. But, perhaps there is good reason for neglecting these mandatory tools, as they are rarely used and enforcement depends on complaints by an adjoining neighbor or the SWCD commissioners, often farmers in the community themselves.

It is important for farmers and landowners to understand government programs, whether voluntary, market-based, or regulatory, that impact land uses. The Sustainable Agricultural Land Tenure Initiative recently produced a video that briefly covers various policy approaches regarding conservation on farmland, with a focus on state and local law.