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Conservation Programs Hamstrung by Farm Bill Uncertainty

Cover-cropping has made inroads with farmers but government funding has lapsed without passage of a new farm bill. (lwvumrr.org)
Cover-cropping has made inroads with farmers but government funding has lapsed without passage of a new farm bill. (lwvumrr.org)
October 17, 2018

ST. PAUL, Minn. - While midterm elections dominate the news, Midwest farmers are left guessing when Congress will pass a new farm bill - or at least extend the current bill.

The 2014 bill expired Sept. 30, but some programs such as SNAP food assistance continue until a new bill is in place. Others are not so lucky, and have been suspended.

Wisconsin farmer Ryan Stockwell, director of sustainable agriculture for the National Wildlife Federation, said he hoped to enroll in the Conservation Stewardship Program this year. However, he's now uncertain if that will be possible.

"This should be and ought to be a part of the vision for agriculture, wherever you're sitting," he said. "Helping farmers improve profitability while protecting vital natural resources - that should be something that everybody stands up and supports."

The absence of a farm bill also means enrollment is suspended in the Conservation Reserve Program. In Congress, a conference committee has been meeting to resolve differences between the farm bill passed by the Senate on a 86-11 vote and the House version that passed with a much narrower margin, 213 to 211. The House bill would make dramatic cuts to conservation programs over the next 10 years.

Like Stockwell, Tom Cotter, who farms 1,100 acres near Rochester, has had great success with cover crops in the past 20 years, and he relied on federal funds to get started. He said there was a big learning curve, but it has been worth it.

"Farming with cover crops is like checkers and chess," he said. "The old way of farming was checkers, real easy; we could use our chemical. But now, when you're doing cover crops, you have to start thinking more."

Cotter said he initially used cover crops to help with weed suppression, but now also relies on them as a conservation measure to curb soil erosion, curtail nutrient loss and conserve water.

"I'd say for the last five, six years we took all that knowledge and really started implementing it on every acre, every year," he said. "And then now, we put in the no-till and strip-till in it, too."

It's possible Congress may take up farm bill discussions after the midterm elections in about three weeks.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - MN