Strangling ag conservation


Sen. Joni Ernst concurs with her fellow Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley that federal ag conservation funding should remain at current, contracted levels. Ernst told us during a visit to Storm Lake last week that Conservation Reserve Program funding can stay where it is because it is “lucrative already.” We asked the question of both senators because the House Ag Committee is busy trying to shred conservation programs on the other side of the Capitol. The best we can do in this false construct is hope for the existing dismal prospect of stunted conservation funding amid great immediate challenges.

All of this is preparatory to deliberation of a new Farm Bill next year, after the general elections.

If Republicans continue to control Congress, federal funding for ag conservation will not improve. This as parties hither and yon mount regulatory and legal challenges to the existing row-crop paradigm. There is a shift in thinking that permeates even some Democratic minds, that the states must take a greater role in funding multi-state agricultural enterprises.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, R-Des Moines, has proposed any sort of multi-billion fund as an answer to the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Branstad calling for a huge state fund to address water quality.

This is a federal issue. The Mississippi runs from Minnesota to the Gulf. Iowa is not alone in degrading the Great American River’s water. The entire Corn Belt is involved, and of course Iowa is its buckle. But when you’re talking $6 billion or more, as Branstad is, it has to make you wonder if Iowa can afford all that engineering.

Federal conservation efforts already are diminished by the historic blunder known as sequestration. Budgets are stuck at levels set years ago for all sorts of ag programs and research. We are told to expect, at best, this diminished level of funding as our new baseline.

We do not accept the premise.

If funding were lucrative enough, farmers would be crushing the FSA and NRCS offices to sign up. Still just a smattering of acres in BV County will get cover crops this winter because they are expensive and there is little cost-share available. If the Wetlands Reserve were healthy, we would not see river bottom farmed along the Des Moines and Raccoon. If the Conservation Stewardship Program were functioning as intended, we would not see grass strips coming out of waterways.

Farmers will respond when the federal government bids rents high enough. Our problems with the Raccoon River will be solved.

Iowa would not need a $6 billion welfare fund for agri-industry if Congress restored conservation funding to levels intended when the programs were instituted. We then could devote those state funds to starved programs like the Resource Enhancement and Protection fund, which has never received full funding from the Iowa Legislature in 30 years.

And, if Congress would let loose the noose imposed by sequestration (remember the debt ceiling debate?) we would not be arguing about whether the Environmental Quality Incentives Program even should exist. The House wants to eliminate it.

All these cuts are subtracted from Iowa farm opportunity. Increased levels of conservation funding will end up in landowner pockets, the same landowners who are voting for Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley. More wildlife habitat means better hunting for rural voters who would love to sling a shotgun with Joni. EQIP funding directly aids livestock producers trying to comply with a growing array of regulations, and sincerely trying to improve their own stewardship.

Farmers, above all, should understand that decreased ag conservation funding works directly against their interests. It puts extra burdens on the state treasury. It exacerbates problems farmers are trying to solve, and makes their black eye worse. We need senators who argue for expansion of ag conservation funding, not for its slow death.

The irony did not escape us as Ernst made her comments at Little Storm Lake, the epicenter of the Storm Lake watershed. The very funds that created the watershed program were appropriated through the efforts of Sen. Tom Harkin’s office, and subsequently dried up during the Bush Administration. That program has been a win-win for farmers, for the lake, for landowners and the community. It is a project that brings people together with common goals and few arguments. That’s the sort of government spending that produces results, and Ernst should have seen it all around her. We trust she will reflect on her time spent in Storm Lake and become a more ardent advocate for sustainable approaches to building agriculture and rural communities through conservation funding enhancement.