The Environmental Working Group issued a press release a new report, “Conservation Compliance: A Retrospective… and a Look Ahead.” The report focuses on a number of surveys that show strong farmer support of tying the direct payments many farmers receive to conservation compliance. The release also addresses the potential impact of losing much of the incentive for conservation compliance if direct payments are removed and crop insurance assistance does not require conservation compliance.

Conservation Compliance: A Retrospective…and Look Ahead by conservationist Max Schnepf concludes through a comprehensive review of public opinion polls that the farming community has consistently supported the historic deal between taxpayers and farmers that was struck in the 1985 farm bill. Under it, growers agreed to keep soil from washing away and chemicals out of waterways in return for generous taxpayer support.

Seven polls taken in the last 30 years show that a solid majority of farmers believe that bargain is a fair one.

“The conservation compact was a godsend for agricultural and conservation groups and farmers,” Schnepf writes. “In the 10 years following the 1985 farm bill, farmers did more to curb soil erosion than at any time since the infamous Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.”

Schnepf notes that Environmental Working Group’s 2011 report, Losing Ground, found that high prices, intense competition for farmland leases and ethanol mandates have put unprecedented pressure on land and water. As a result, the historic gains in soil conservation the compact achieved are being lost.

“Conservation is once again being pushed to the back seat – the very situation that led to the compact in the first place,” said EWG Senior Vice President Craig Cox. “We need to reinvigorate the compact just to keep things from getting worse, let alone make long-overdue progress on pollution problems that have gone unchecked for decades.”

In response to the report EWG makes four policy suggestions for Congress.

  • Bringing risk management programs back under the conservation compact umbrella.
  • Updating decades-old conservation plans to reflect modern technology and current weather patterns.
  • Requiring landowners to control highly damaging gully erosion on all annually tilled cropland.
  • Dedicating funding for conservation planning and enforcement.

Regardless of opinion on conservation compliance and crop insurance subsidies, the report and policy recommendations highlight matters of importance for non-operator landowners. First, landowners, through the terms of a lease, can require compliance with certain conservation practices beyond those legislatively mandated. For example, soil loss from gully erosion is not included in measurements to monitor  conservation compliance, but landowners can protect against gully erosion in their lease agreement. Its also important to point out, however, that issues regarding the impact of these practices on the operation may need to be discussed with the tenant.

Second, best management practices and conservation technology, as well as weather patterns change, and conservation plans can become obsolete. Regardless of whether required by law, USDA NRCS staff can help landowners and farmers develop an up-to-date conservation plan that can be incorporated into a lease agreement.

For more information on conservation provisions and incorporating conservation plans into your lease agreement view Chapter Five: Key Considerations for a Sustainable Farm Lease in “The Landowner’s Guide to Sustainable Farm Leasing.”