Jack Majeres doesn’t think producers have been doing nearly enough to conserve natural resources in the past few years.
Addressing a Farm Bill Conservation Forum in Sioux Falls on May 2, the Dell Rapids farmer and second vice president of the National Association of Conservation Districts said the erosion he sees “tears my heart out.”
In some instances, the chairman of the Moody County Conservation District sees it as “greed.” Many of the megafarmers of today, he said, are “gobbling up every piece of ground they can get.”
“Are they doing a good job of farming it? When I see the erosion coming from some of these acres, it tears my heart out,” he said.
With the large farm implements of today, many grass waterways simply are disappearing, he said, as the producers roll right through them.
And as more farmers tile their land, “it’s creating a huge amount of sedimentation in our streams,” he said.
With land and commodity prices going up, Majeres said he also has had some producers tell him they can’t afford to keep land in grass or establish buffer zones for the tile discharges.
“We need to get back to the basic conservation and stewardship ethics,” he told the group of South Dakota ag officials, producers and conservationists at the forum sponsored by the Izaak Walton League of America.
That was one side of the story at the forum.
Others had different takes on what’s happening on farms and hopes for the future as the farm bill is being debated in the U.S. Congress.
Lisa Richardson, executive director of the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council, argued with Majeres about progress being made in conservation.
She said erosion nationwide has decreased by more than half, with organic matter on farms more than doubling because of practices producers are undertaking.
“We have been producing more (crops) with less (natural resources) over the past 20 years,” she said. “We are getting better, way better.”
With more crops needed to feed the world, Richardson said, she doesn’t think steps should be taken to limit the opportunities that lie ahead with the many advances in technology and biotech crops.
Majeres retorted that there are still many “bad actors out there.”
Many producers aren’t participating in the farm bill, he said, and they say it’s “our land and we’ll do what we want whether you like it our not.”
“To me, it’s greed. The more I get, the better I’m going to be. I’m going to do it for myself. It’s all about me, that’s our culture today,” Majeres said.
However, he said, when there’s a drought or commodity prices drop in the years ahead, many are going to be coming back.
After the meeting, Majeres said that gully erosion, especially with recent heavy rains in some areas, is “phenomenal.”
“In the last couple of years, especially in this area, producers seem to be going back to moldboard plowing, less residue on the surface in the winter months, and with the advent of more tile drainage, the grass waterways are being torn out and not replaced. It’s a reoccurrence of what was happening 25 years ago. To spend that much money over the past years (for conservation practices) … and now for economic or convenience reasons to go back to the old practices isn’t right.”
Doug Sombke, a producer and president of the South Dakota Farmers Union, also is seeing some troubles in the countryside. He said it’s kind of like “the wild, wild West again” as producers try to get rid of excess water in the waterlogged northeast part of South Dakota.
“We need to find an equilibrium,” he said about conserving water. “Water management has been a mess for years in the state.”
Sombke said South Dakota Agriculture Secretary Walt Bones and legislators took a big step this past legislative session in setting up a study group to develop more water management districts in the state.
As for the farm bill, most of those at the meeting agreed that conservation is good for the bottom line and that many of the federal programs are well worth keeping.
Award-winning conservationist rancher Jim Faulstich of Highmore, S.D., vice president of the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition, said he wondered about his survival during the bleak economic days of agriculture back in the 1980s. But once he got “in tune with nature,” the economics of his operation improved dramatically. He said it had nothing to do with the economic turnaround in farming, but what he accomplished on his land, making natural resources his first priority.
The Izaak Walton League’s Gwen Steel, who moderated a panel discussion at the forum, surmised that from the federal conservation program list, the Conservation Stewardship Program and “sod saver” effort enjoyed the most general support.
The Conservation Reserve Program, which faces a loss of millions of acres in the coming years, needs some revisions but also was a key effort identified. The CRP, which hasn’t filled its goal of 32 million acres this year, will be cut to 25 million acres by 2017 under the Senate bill.
The bottom line is that conservation dollars will be shrinking in the coming farm bill, and a big chunk will come from reducing the CRP program.
Sombke said the public wants more money spent on conservation.
However, Brad Redlin, the League’s ag program director from St. Paul, Minn., said funding cuts – an estimated $6 billion – are going to have a real effect on conservation.
The U.S. Senate bill, which passed through the ag committee in late April on a 16-5 bipartisan vote, is headed for the Senate floor with the cuts intact. The U.S. House might cut even more, although the added cuts in their bill are largely in the food stamp program.
Overall, the Senate bill cuts $23 billion from an estimated $288 billion farm bill, while the House would cut $33 billion.
The Senate bill also takes 27 conservation programs and pares them to 13.
“We don’t care what you call a program, but we want to make sure the unique functions of the conservation efforts are maintained,” Redlin said.
“For example, right now we have a wetlands reserve program that is hugely popular in South Dakota in an effort to re-establish wetlands on the land. We want to make sure we get the technical assistance, engineering and easement funding to keep that going.”
U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., was instrumental in getting the “sod saver” amendment in the Senate farm bill. The proposal would reduce the amount of crop insurance premium subsidies for four years on crops grown on native sod converted to cropland and reduce indemnity levels, in order to discourage abuse and conversion of grassland to cropland for crop insurance benefits.
Redlin said the primary plank of the Izaak Walton League, though, is to keep conservation compliance in the farm programs so that the “swampbuster” and “sodbuster” provisions are there to set a basic floor for conservation practices.
“We say if you are receiving taxpayer dollars, taxpayers ask only one basic conservation thing in return, that you manage the soil and the wetlands,” Redlin said.
The best thing about those compliance rules, Redlin said, is that they don’t cost any taxpayer dollars. He would like to see the compliance measures included if producers receive crop insurance premium subsides, too, so all can abide by the same rules as with any other subsidies in the farm bill.
As for the chance of getting a farm bill through this year, there are varying opinions.
Thune said the progress being made in the Senate is improving the odds.
“I think there is a better than 50-50 chance of getting it out of the Senate.
“But the question is in the House,” he said. Still, this past week he wondered whether the Senate leadership would schedule a debate in time to get the bill passed this year.
Redlin said he sees at least a favorable temporary schedule in the House to get a bill moving. He said the House Agriculture Committee is finishing up hearings this month, and a vote could follow after that in the panel. The entire House possibly could take up the bill early this summer. But it is an election year, Redlin said, and extensions of the farm bill have happened before as the deadline of Sept. 30 looms for the end to the current bill.
However, Thune and others worry that if it does drag into next year, even more cost-cutting could emerge.
In the past two farm bills, more conservation dollars were included. This time, it’s not likely to happen with the $6 billion cut gaining steam.
That’s why, Redlin said, priorities need to be set and farm organizations need to talk and work together to salvage what they can.