It was less than 90 years ago when the perfect storm of environmental destruction culminated from the combination of poor farming practices and brutal drought conditions. The Dust Bowl of the 1930’s is the reminder of what consequences result from the work of over-ambitious, newly settled farmers. In return for neglecting the delicate balance of the ecosystem, they reaped what they had sowed in excess. The careless exploitation of the soil resulted in large-scale erosion and the native grasses that were so very effective in retaining moisture and renewing soil nutrients were stripped away. In retrospect, the Dust Bowl really cannot be classified as a big surprise, given these details.
The droughts this summer are a relatively gentle reminder of what can happen if we neglect the land that sustains us. According to recent reports, “nearly 90 percent of the corn and soybeans on American farms have been damaged or destroyed” due to the weather. Although farming practices have certainly been re-evaluated and improved upon since the Dirty Thirties, another tipping point of agricultural reform is in currently our hands. The conservation of native grasses has often been overlooked amidst the ambition of large scale farming, as well as the demand for cheap and easy food.
Here is where Amendment #55 of the Farm Bill comes into play. The SodSaver provision was designed to “conserve critical natural and economic resources by reducing crop insurance premium subsidies on native prairie acres that are planted to crops.” So far, this legislation only applies to a small part of the Great Plains, specifically the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). The goal of the recent amendment was to extend it to be nationwide, and to result in a 10-year savings of $66 million, which would be contributed towards the reduction of the deficit as well as the Beginner Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).
Native grasslands are very critical, but very threatened. The grasses provide invaluable ecological benefits including “wildlife habitat, flood mitigation, erosion control.” If the valuable native lands are neglected and legislature allows too much land to be used for agricultural production, the long-term costs of erosion and nutrient loss will ultimately be evident in a loss of water quality and reduced capacity to mitigate water flow. The “50 percent point reduction in the subsidy” was proposed to prevent people from relying on insurance coverage to plant as much as they could without care for the consequences to the soil, as well as to prevent the unchecked allocation of taxpayer’s dollars towards this expense. Recent reports have clearly stated, “as federal crop insurance subsidies continue to grow, soil continues to erode on 100 million acres at unsustainable levels, and wetlands continue to be lost.” This amendment has never been more essential since the majority of the endangered prairie territory lies outside of the region covered currently.
Additionally, this amendment proposes increased support for beginning farmers. Currently, over 50% of the nation’s farmers will be reaching retirement age in 10 years or less, resulting in the critical need to start expanding farming programs for the young now. The BFRDP provides training and assistance through grants and community organizations, all of which have been shown to be successful and very effective. Yet its funding has been cut from $19 to $10 million per year. The amendment aims for a compromise of $17 million per year.
But unfortunately, Amendment #55 failed to pass. The main opposition stated that the provision would infringe upon the American individual’s rights to do what he pleases with his own land. However, considering both the environmental and economic ramifications of the Sodsaver amendment, it is what makes practical sense in the long term. There were some critical amendments that did pass, including ones for organic crop insurance and microloans for beginning farmers. Though this progress should not be devalued, there are still issues that have the potential to grow and influence change on a larger scale.
Amendment #55 of the 2012 Farm Bill is critical to the conservation of important lands that preserve the ecological and historical balance of America, as well as supporting the next generation of farmers who have the onus of shaping the future of farming. Careless farming, of course, is not the sole culprit of environmental destruction, but neglecting its effect would be just as harmful as actively encouraging pollution in air and water. You can still show your support by reaching out to your Senator’s office directly via their direct lines. You can ask about speaking to the staff responsible for agricultural issues or by leaving a message. Voicing your support can result in a synergistic effect; it is what you can do to contribute to the fate of ecological conservation and American agriculture.