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Farm bill gets it right on conservation

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Believe it or not, it is still possible for Congress to improve policy, receive strong bipartisan support on an issue and save scarce federal dollars at the same time.

Don’t believe us? The proof is in the farm bill — specifically, the conservation and forestry titles that are nearing completion in the new bill.

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Despite the polarized political climate and challenging budget times, this farm bill would be one of the strongest ever for conservation and forestry.

Our decades of work on the ground with farmers and other private landowners all over the country have given us the experience to affirm that the farm bill’s conservation provisions are practical, cost-effective and provide solid ways for the government to collaborate with individual landowners. They enable growers to do what they want to do: be good stewards of the land.

People often don’t realize that, while the farm bill is primarily about food and farms, it’s also — by far — the nation’s largest investment supporting the voluntary and successful conservation, restoration and management of America’s private lands. Roughly half of the land in the contiguous United States is crop, range or pasture land, and the conservation of the natural resources on that land is critical for all of us.

Even though farm bill conservation programs account for just 7 percent of the bill’s overall funding, they encourage practices that lead to healthier lands and waters, and they are critical to a strong economy, healthy and productive rural lands, and vibrant communities.

The new farm bill has several important provisions to advance effective conservation, respecting the vital role that farmers, ranchers and forest owners play in conserving our nation’s soil, water and wildlife. For example, conservation groups and farm organizations came together to support linking conservation compliance with crop insurance to encourage farmers to preserve native grassland and other environmentally sensitive land.

This was done while cutting billions of dollars from the conservation and forestry titles of the bill overall. Even with those cuts, the bill increases budgets for large-impact investments, such as conservation easements and smart targeting through partnership programs.

Farmers, ranchers and other private landowners in America depend upon these farm bill programs to help them provide a safe and abundant food supply while at the same time protecting and restoring wetlands and grasslands, improving water quality, increasing flood control and providing wildlife habitat. 

If you depend on any of these things, as of course you do, then these conservation programs are important to you, too.

All Americans enjoy the results of these programs, including cleaner water, improved soil conservation, enhanced wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities, increased flood control, stronger local communities and rural economies, and affordable and healthy food.

The leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees are to be commended for finding this healthy way forward by working together, listening to the people on the ground about what works, and leading the way for all of Congress to vote for smart, efficient solutions.

There is a lesson here for policymakers, and all of us who want to help advance smart, sensible policies that produce results. Getting it right on conservation in the farm bill surely wasn’t easy, but the model used by the Agriculture Committee leaders worked.

Here’s to them for showing such a commitment to our natural resources and our farmers, and here’s to their approach leading the way for further progress.

Tercek is president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. Barbre, a full-time family farmer in southern Illinois, is president of the National Corn Growers Association, which represents more than 40,000 corn farmers nationwide.