Farmers and Green Groups Unite to Save Ag Conservation Programs | Civil Eats

Farmers and Green Groups Unite to Save Ag Conservation Programs

When California’s leading environmental and farm organizations agree on something, lawmakers should pay attention. Last week, a remarkable alliance of farmer and environmental groups came together to urge the state’s Congressional delegation to defend funding for key conservation programs that are under the knife in the Obama Administration’s proposed 2011 budget.

In a March 12 letter [PDF] to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Sam Farr of Carmel, 24 members of the California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment called on the lawmakers to reject the Administration’s proposal to cut $500 million next year from conservation programs approved in the 2008 Farm Bill. Feinstein and Farr are members of the Agricultural Appropriations subcommittees of their respective houses.

“The proposed cutbacks will result in a loss of jobs in the agriculture/conservation sector, hitting California’s rural communities hardest. For every conservation dollar cut, two dollars in ‘shovel ready’ projects will be lost,” said the letter, signed by groups ranging from the California Farm Bureau Foundation, the Western Growers Association and the Agricultural Council of California to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Working Group.

The cuts would mean a loss to California next year of at least $30 million promised for conservation programs under the Farm Bill. These programs help farmers implement management practices that deliver critical environmental and public benefits: improving soil, water and air quality; protecting wildlife habitat; reducing energy and water use; and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

The largest of the threatened programs–the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP–provides vital support for California farmers to adopt less energy-intensive, more sustainable, integrated practices. In 2009, forty per cent of California’s $58 million in EQIP funding went to support four practices–cover cropping, conservation crop rotation, integrated pest management (IPM) and nutrient management–that reduce chemical use and runoff and improve soil and water quality.

The largest chunk, $7.5 million, helped to pay the cost of sowing cover crops on 150,000 acres of California farmland. These are fast-growing crops such as winter rye, clover or vetch, planted between periods of regular crop production to prevent soil erosion, build up nutrients in the soil and control weeds and pests. Benefits of cover cropping include enhanced soil fertility, reduced nutrient leaching, forage crop production, increased water infiltration and retention, reduced chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, and increased carbon sequestration.

A recent study [PDF] by the California Energy Commission found that cover cropping has the greatest potential to reduce agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions of any major farming practice. The threatened funding underwrites a variety of other conservation practices such as nutrient management, composting, hedgerow and riparian buffer planting, and conservation tillage. All are helping farm operations reduce their emissions and sequester carbon in the soil and plants, among other benefits.

For example, planting hedgerows provides valuable habitat to more than 1,500 species of native pollinators and other birds and wildlife. California leads the nation in hedgerow planting, with more than 57 miles of hedgerows, or half the nation’s total, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. That’s a lot of habitat for a small investment of $170,000.

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With all the water woes in the state, federal conservation programs have been especially important this year in helping farmers save money and water, with more than $22 million invested in efficient irrigation management. According to federal data, these changes achieved an average 25% reduction in water use.

At a time when farmers are under pressure to reduce their emissions and environmental impact, the government should be investing more, not less, in these valuable initiatives.

Already, demand for conservation funding far exceeds the money available. Last year, more than 6,000 California farmers applied for EQIP funds, but only 1,700 succeeded. Among those were farmers applying for support under the Organic Initiative, a new organic transition and conservation program, established in the 2007 Farm Bill. In FY2009, NRCS was only able to approve 158 out of the 363 Organic applications for a total of  $3.27 million. Due to lack of funds, 205 growers seeking an additional $4 million in cost share assistance were turned away. Still, California led the nation with the most number of contracts signed under the new initiative.

Funding for EQIP has been cut every year since the 2002 Farm Bill was passed. If Congress approves the Administration’s recommendation the nation’s farmers and ranchers will have lost $1.8 billion in technical and financial help promised in the 2002 farm bill to improve the sustainability of their farms and ranches. The sharp cut in funding from what was promised in the Farm Bill will leave thousands more farmers who want to do the right thing for the environment without support.

In a time of scarce resources and serious environmental challenges, we have to make difficult budget decisions. But cutting programs that help farmers, help the environment and provide jobs is not a smart choice.

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Kari Hamerschlag is a Senior Program Manger for Friends of the Earth's Food and Technology Program. Previously she worked for five years as a Senior Analyst for Environmental Working Group, and as a sustainable food policy consultant in the Bay Area, including a year long stint running a Farm Bill campaign for the California Coalition for Food and Farming. Read more >

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