A little slice of heaven, and protection, if we can just hang onto it

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Everything was on the run Saturday with the pheasant opener — hunters from Texas to Alabama poured in while the corn was scooped up and the critters were sent scurrying. The bucks soon will be in rut and crazier, perfect for the bow hunters, while the pheasants lose their corn cover.

Along the Raccoon River about 11 a.m. Saturday four men with no dog walked lazy through the grass on 20 acres of land in the Conservation Reserve Program pheasant restoration program. They scared up a dozen pheasants and took a few shots on land that would have yielded them nothing three years ago when it was cropped.

They rousted the deer resting in the tall grass, this in its second year. A couple young bucks and another dozen does fled the premises for cornfields upland.

The leader of the quasi-hunting party has seen the wild turkeys, not that many but they are there when they weren’t before.

He nearly ran over a fox not long ago.

It’s working out for everybody involved: The pheasants and deer until they meet a shotgun, the farmer/landowner who doesn’t have to worry about getting beans out in the middle of October downpours if they didn’t get flooded out earlier, the sisters living far away who like to visit and see it and hear about it, our friends who get to hunt it, and the Raccoon doesn’t get the soil rushing down the hill like it used to.

It costs the taxpayer less than crop insurance paying for flooded-out acres where crops shouldn’t have been planted in the first place. Up and down the Raccoon, most of it is sowed to corn and beans with few oases of prairie flowers and switchgrass. It’s worse along Cedar Creek. And that’s part of the reason we have such problems with surface water quality in Iowa.

Everybody wins with the Conservation Reserve. Yet, there are serious efforts underway to undermine conservation funding overall in the new farm bill, if it ever passes. Republicans in the House have taken aim at conservation funding, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declared that all spending is on the table to pay for tax cuts. Fortunately, the Republicans can’t brush their teeth without assistance, so they have not yet been able to plunder conservation (and nutrition) funding.

This is why we should care about the farm bill.

Our congressman chants about ethanol but actually does nothing for farmers. Where is Rep. King on the trade war with China? Sen. Grassley this week said he stands with President Trump against China and, by extension, Iowa farmers.

We can’t trust that they will do right by the farmer, the hunter or the river.

They haven’t so far. Iowa pheasant populations are up this year, but they are way down from the heydays of the 1960s when it was major tourism. That’s purely a function of habitat. River pollution, and soil erosion rates, are increasing. Meanwhile, the price of corn relative to everything else is decreasing.

The 2018 proposed budget for crop insurance is $78 billion while the conservation title is $59 billion. A massive spending cut is planned for nutrition programs. Spending on commodity programs is expected to rise.

Crop insurance makes sure that farmers can plant up to the Raccoon River and even into it. It also protects farmers in real duress from natural disaster or wild income disruptions. CRP and programs like it offer as much revenue per acre as planting that land to corn or beans. Yet people across and up and down the river presumably think insurance is a better bet, and trusting that those bins full of corn might be worth more some day despite Trump.

That’s because everyone who wants to see that land in production is funding the system, not the hunter or the landowner or the farmer. Certainly not the wild turkeys. The farm bill is a complicated purchase negotiation among interest groups that has not yet been settled despite a Sept. 30 deadline.

Not everyone likes pheasants and deer and geese. Most of us do. Water customers in Des Moines are willing to pay a little bit to keep that soil out of the Raccoon, because it’s less expensive than removing it downstream. But the real money wants that seed put down even if it gets washed away. We would allow grazing on CRP acres if the money wanted it that way.

That these tiny patches of prairie are restored and might persist we can be grateful, for now. We can hope that it will maybe even grow against the odds. That maybe we really could sort out this complicated problem of agriculture and the environment in a fairly simple way where everybody who matters can win for once.