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Focusing on the 2018 federal farm bill

By MWA, 12/22/17, 3:30PM CST

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As many conservationists/sportsmen know, the federal farm bill is hugely important when it comes to delivering conservation on the ground through programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program.

As we near the end of 2017, we look toward 2018, when Congress is set to write a new federal farm bill. It’s an important process to watch and be involved so we can ensure the next farm bill contains a strong conservation title. Many conservation groups work hard every day to make the farm bill strong, though it’s also worth pointing out that our state agencies such as the Board of Water and Soil Resources and Department of Natural Resources do as well.

Several days ago, Gov. Mark Dayton sent a letter to the state’s Congressional delegation outlining priorities for the next farm bill. Following are the relevant portions of the letter from a conservation perspective:

The Farm Bill has the ability to encourage conservation efforts, improve water quality, bolster the health of the environment, and help protect Minnesota's drinking water supply. In order to maintain a strong Agriculture economy and strong rural communities, we must do more to invest in conservation practices that protect our drinking water, lakes, and rivers. The vast majority of Minnesota farmers are good stewards of the land and their efforts are supported through programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).

Continued support of Swamp buster and Sodsaver will also help preserve current conservation efforts. Expanding support for cover crops and simple updates to food labeling standards present new conservation opportunities.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) should be reformed by: 1) increasing the acreage cap to 40 million acres, 2) allowing states to have input on prioritizing program acres, including the possible prioritization of lands that have been converted to water quality buffer strips, 3) and reducing lag time for valuation of CRP rates in order to prevent distortions inthe land rental market.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) should be preserved and all existing CREP agreements should remain in effect. In Minnesota, 60,000 acres will be permanently protected and will provide critical water quality and habitat benefits.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) should continue to be funded in order to provide financial assistance to producers to implement and maintain conservation practices. The RCPP provides funding for innovative conservation programs like the highly successful Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. In addition, funding should be provided to implement projects identified in recent RCPP funded planning efforts, like the Red River Basin of the North Flood Prevention Plan.

Swampbuster and Sodsaver have been effective at preventing the conversion of vital wetlands and grasslands. These conservation compliance provisions should be carried forward in the next Farm Bill. Additionally, the "perennial crop loophole" should be closed to further strengthen Sodsaver.

The Farm Bill should encourage the incorporation of cover crops into farmers' rotations. Cover crops prevent wind and water erosion, improve water and soil quality, reduce runoff, and protect groundwater quality by preventing chemicals from leaching into the water table. Funding should be made available for research on new cover crops and for marketing assistance for innovative crops like Kemza and pennycress.