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A better farm future starts with the soil

A better farm future starts with the soil
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Within the next year Congress will reauthorize the massive amalgamation of legislation we commonly refer to as “the farm bill.” The farm bill, which is reauthorized every five years, has major implications for every part of our food and farm system and covers issues including but certainly not limited to: conservation, nutrition, local food, credit and finance, research and commodity subsidies.

Although healthy soil is one of the essential building blocks of agriculture, historically the issue has not been a major focus of the farm bill – as some farmers would say, soil has been treated like dirt. With extreme weather events on the rise and farmers and foresters feeling the effects of a changing climate, however, soil health is now at the forefront of our national conversation.

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Soil health is critical for agriculture and natural resource management because only healthy soil can effectively cycle nutrients and capture and store water, which sustains plant and crop life and helps to build resilient, productive agricultural systems. As our most significant package of food and farm legislation approaches expiration on September 30, 2018, many are asking: How can the farm bill support resilient farms, address natural resource concerns and increase productivity? A key part of the answer: promote soil health.

 

At the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, we’ve been working with our membership for 30 years to create and expand programs and policies that support soil health – an effort we’ll continue in the 2018 farm bill.

Conservation

Healthy soil depends on conservation management practices that invigorate its ability to cycle nutrients, capture and store water, and sequester carbon from the air. The farm bill authorizes several technical and financial assistance programs that support farmers and ranchers in these activities, including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Together, these two programs serve as the heart of the USDA’s working lands conservation portfolio.

Through EQIP, participants can take the first step in soil health management by integrating practices such as cover crops, conservation cover, prescribed grazing, range planting and nutrient management. When farmers are ready to step up to even more advanced conservation systems, they can access CSP, which can be used to target soil health improvements, including diversified crop rotations and high-level rotational grazing, on a farmer’s entire operation.

The next farm bill should enhance the long-term funding base for both working lands programs and ensure an ongoing and growing focus on improving soil health. In addition, the farm bill should make sure that USDA has the authority and funding it needs to measure and report on program outcomes. This provides accountability for taxpayers and ensures USDA has the information it needs to modify and improve conservation programs to ensure that they are creating solutions to priority resource concerns, including soil health.

Research

Farmers aren’t born with all the information they need to run a successful operation; they rely on research and data to inform their work. Publicly funded research programs, like those in the farm bill, can help producers find solutions for their soil health challenges.

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program is one of the only USDA research programs with a clear and consistent focus on farmer-driven research. SARE is the leader in cutting-edge on-farm research to develop and test soil enhancement methods, such as regionally specific cover cropping or grazing management systems. The next farm bill should reauthorize and secure direct farm bill funding for SARE to ensure the program’s continued success.

Organic agriculture has always made soil health its centerpiece. For organic producers, who have their own unique set of opportunities and challenges when it comes to soil health, the farm bill includes the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI). OREI is currently the only program that supports research to specifically address the challenges of organic farmers, such as how to use manure effectively in ways that foster soil health. In order to ensure that organic producers have the tools they need to enhance their operations and keep up with rapidly growing demand for organic products, the next farm bill should provide at least $50 million in annual direct funding for OREI.

Integrating soil health into the farm safety net

Lastly, the 2018 farm bill must further integrate soil health practices and protections into the farm safety net. Currently, the federal crop insurance program (the costliest piece of the farm safety net) provides farmers with confusing and often contradictory messages about on-farm conservation.

While the 2014 Farm Bill made some strides at better aligning the federal crop insurance program with conservation goals, there are still many obstacles to overcome to ensure that we have risk management strategies that complement – rather than contradict – farmers’ efforts at building soil health.

In order to protect and enhance our soil, we need a 2018 farm bill that significantly strengthens the enforcement and standards of USDA-required conservation compliance agreements, which are entered into with commodity farmers that produce on highly erodible land. The farm bill must also underscore the connection between healthy soils and reduced risks for farmers, and ensure that federal crop insurance programs reward producers for advanced conservation activities and provide the appropriate incentives for those who are not currently engaged.

Collectively, reforms to conservation, research and the farm safety net present an enormous opportunity to improve the health of our soils. At National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, we are committed to digging in and doing the work to protect family farmers and their soil. We know that the future of agriculture in America requires healthy soils, and that in order to build them we must have bipartisan champions in Congress that will fight for programs and policies that protect and enhance the critical resource that is at the roots of our nation’s agricultural production.

Alyssa Charney is a policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and staffs the Coalition's Conservation, Energy, and Environment Committee. Charney previously served as a FoodCorps member in rural Montana, where she established and expanded a local farm to school program. She has also worked on food and agriculture policy at the Center for Rural Affairs, New England Farmers Union, and the National Farm to School Network. Charney holds an M.S. in Agriculture and Food Policy and an M.P.H from Tufts University.