Guest authored by Skip Hyberg, owner of H&H Conservation and consultant, America’s Conservation Ag Movement

The heart of America’s Conservation Ag Movement (ACAM) is the goal of making U.S. agriculture more sustainable, finding economically sound ways to reduce soil erosion, store carbon in our soils and otherwise improve soil health, while also protecting and enhancing water quality and quantity, and restoring and protecting wildlife habitat. These efforts are parts of the puzzle we need to solve on our way to finding economically and environmentally sustainable production systems.

There are a lot of bases we need to touch to get there. These include: designing and adopting sound conservation systems for our cropland, pastures, and rangeland, developing improved crop varieties that are more productive and are drought-, pest-, and disease-resistant, and establishing effective and trusted communication systems to deliver all sorts of information to farmers when they need it.

Perhaps first base can be defined as identifying marginal cropland, those fields whose cultivation expends time and resources from farmers, but typically generate zero or negative returns. The arithmetic tells us that a farmer with such marginal land would be better off retiring it and concentrating his or her efforts on higher-quality fields. Admittedly, what constitutes marginal land is dictated at least in part by market conditions. A comparison of 2020 and 2021 demonstrates this. In 2020/2021, the season average corn price was $4.35/bu., while the WASDE season average projection for the 2021/2022 crop year is $5.30/bu. Similarly for soybeans the 2020/2021 season average price was $11.25/bu., and the 2021/2022 WASDE projection is $13.85/bu. Obviously, a lot more acres can be profitably cropped this year than could be last year, assuming normal weather conditions prevail.

While acknowledging the task can be difficult, identifying cropland that, when farmed, provide marginal or negative returns and helping these fields transition to grazing or other uses where the farmer can receive a return on his investment, can help individual farmers and the agricultural sector as a whole become more sustainable. This is the philosophy behind the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a program established in the 1985 farm bill, which is intended to compensate farmers who voluntarily retire marginal highly erodible land for 10 to 15 years in return for annual rental payments and cost share assistance to establish conservation covers, such as native grasses, trees, buffers and wetlands.

This year, conservation unexpectedly lost two of its stars, Mike Linsenbigler and Alex Barbarika, who both worked at USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Both Alex and Mike worked to make the CRP effective, beneficial to farmers, and cost-efficient. Their efforts to identify and target marginal cropland for retirement, nurture innovative conservation practices, and deliver a program that was fair to all participants were invisible to most of us, but their dedication has provided benefits to all Americans, impacting millions of acres of conservation nationwide.

Mike started his career as a District Conservationist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Montana, working with farmers and ranchers to develop and install conservation systems that fit their operations. He took this experience with him as he rose to become the deputy director of the Conservation and Environmental Programs Division of the Farm Service Agency (FSA). During his tenure at USDA, he helped establish and implement the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), establishing 25 CREP agreements in over 20 states. Mike also played a key role in developing pilot programs to demonstrate the effectiveness of new conservation systems, such as constructed wetlands and saturated buffers that treat nitrogen leaving fields, and designing initiatives that protected soil health, protected and improved water quality, and enhanced wildlife habitat. Mike truly listened to people and was a genius at finding solutions where others only saw obstacles. He genuinely cared about farmers and conservation and had deep admiration for all who worked to put conservation onto the landscape.

Alex was an economist extraordinaire. He single-handedly made the CRP the best-documented conservation program in the world. Over much of the CRP’s 35-year history, he documented costs and enrollment by year, practice, state and just about any other rubric you can imagine. His capacity to anticipate the information requirements of producers, managers, agency heads and Congress was unmatched. Alex was never too busy to answer a question and was always gracious and helpful.

You might say, “That’s interesting, but why should I care”? I have a couple of responses. The first is the reason for this blog. Mike and Alex worked together to protect and enhance soil health, improve water quality and increase other conservation benefits from the tens of millions of acres of marginal cropland that have been enrolled in the CRP over the years.

The fruits of their efforts can be seen today as eroded and degraded soils on land formerly enrolled into and protected by the CRP are now being brought back into production to grow corn and soybeans in this time of high demand and low supply. These soils can be profitably farmed both because crop prices have risen sharply, but just as importantly because the conservation covers established under the CRP stopped erosion and increased soil carbon, thereby increasing soil health.

These healthier soils are more productive, more resilient to weather extremes, and therefore crop production on these soils is more sustainable from having been in CRP. The program would have generated many of these benefits without Mike’s and Alex’s help, but there would have been less benefits and they would have cost more. This is a good enough reason to care. They have helped America’s agriculture become more sustainable–to farm the best and conserve the rest.

My second, and to me the more appropriate response, is that a life well lived in service to others is worth celebrating.

Let’s recognize and celebrate their contributions.

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