Farm Bill Updates Could Protect Ranchers, Grasslands

The 2014 farm bill has lapsed, temporarily sapping key federal financial support for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), among other incentives. Yet inability to reach consensus in Congress isn’t stopping organizations such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) from calling for a better patchwork of incentives to help U.S. farmers and ranchers operate their businesses profitably while preserving at-risk grasslands.

“Farm bill conservation programs are really important because they reduce the financial barrier of adopting those practices,” says Melinda Cep, senior director for policy, markets and food at WWF, and the leader of the organization’s farm bill work, which is featured in WWF’s 2018 Plowprint Report. Congress first wove conservation into the farm bill in 1985.

The NGO is calling for “more strategic” thinking about how incentives could be layered to incentivize grassland protection, particularly in the Northern Great Plains. There, WWF estimates 69% of the grasslands remain, while 31% has been plowed. Ninety-three percent of remaining intact grasslands in the Northern Great Plains are on poor- or marginal-quality soils. Positively, WWF says, conversion of grassland into cropland slowed from 710,000 acres converted in 2016 to 540,000 acres in 2017. But ongoing conversion in states such as South Dakota remains a concern in light of WWF’s goal of eliminating grassland conversion by 2030.

Mechanisms to reverse the trend could include strengthening and expanding the Sodsaver program, revising CRP language to encourage more enrollment of grassland acres and higher numbers of acres set aside for wildlife habitat in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

Conversion Threats. The high row-crop prices of several years ago undoubtedly contributed to the uptick in grassland conversion, Cep acknowledges. But farmers need to be aware of the tradeoffs of their decision to grow corn, soybeans and wheat on marginal ground.

Ranchland could dwindle in the absence of clear conservation mandates, notes Martha Kauffman, managing director of the Northern Great Plains Program at WWF. Livestock production and the community it creates could lapse as more marginal land is converted to cropland.

“What you can see is increasing acres of farmland, more and more leased ground and fewer people on those landscapes, as well as loss of essential services,” Kauffman says. “What is plowed is marginal soils and lower-yielding lands. The viability long-term of those areas of farmland is much, much lower.”

Water quality also is at risk in a region that touches 44 million Americans. For example, the Northern Great Plains includes the Missouri River watershed, where 25 million acres of grassland could be converted because they are arable. Tilling the soil could result in downstream flooding and loading of nitrogen and phosphorus, raising water-treatment costs for cities.

Several bird species also face threats. Already, the population of some grassland birds has fallen between 70% and 90%. If declines continue at existing rates, some birds could approach extinction by 2030. Among them is McCown’s Longspur, whose estimated population of 600,000 could be halved over the period. Other resident birds such as the Greater Sage-Grouse could see breeding areas disrupted. For instance, one landowner’s decision to convert a section—1 square mile—into new cropland can negatively impact sage grouse across a landscape 12 times that size.

“You have to ask, ‘What’s viable?’ It’s the whole fragmentation and degradation of the system that goes along with the plow-up,” Kauffman says.

Ecosystem Approach. The best way to ensure farmers and ranchers continue to operate profitability while protecting sensitive geographic areas is to understand the ecosystem of existing programs and develop policy and market solutions, Cep concludes.

Local zoning, state taxes and federal programs all play a role in driving conservation participation. So too do crop insurance requirements, as outlined in a report from USDA’s Economic Research Service in July 2017.

“You’re looking at a balance sheet,” she says.