Minn. farmers have most to lose if conservation cut from farm bill

Scott Haase holds up healthy soil.
Scott Haase, a farmer in Blue Earth, Minn., holds up healthy soil on July 5, 2017. Haase has received Conservation Stewardship Program money to incorporate conservation practices on his land, such as planting cover crops.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Some Minnesota farmers are concerned about how conservation programs will fare under the next farm bill, which is being negotiated in Congress.

House and Senate agriculture leaders — including Minnesota's 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson, who is ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee — are working on a compromise for the massive bill, which includes funding for food stamps, crop insurance and programs focused on conservation. It comes up for renewal about every five years, and the 2014 bill expired earlier this year.

Republican congressional leaders have said they want to pass the farm bill before the end of the year — before Democrats take over control of the U.S. House.

One element of the latest version of the farm bill that looks different in the House and Senate versions is the Conservation Stewardship Program. It pays farmers to use practices that reduce soil erosion and promote better water quality, such as planting cover crops and altering the way fertilizers and herbicides are applied. The House version would eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Senate version would keep it.

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"If it were eliminated, it would be a huge hit to Minnesota farmers," said Ben Anderson, an organizer with the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit organization that focuses on farming and the environment.

Every year, Minnesota is among the top recipients of Conservation Stewardship Program dollars. Anderson estimates that farmers here could lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 10 years if Congress decides to get rid of it.

Cows at Bonnie Haugen’s dairy farm near Canton, Minn.
In this undated photo, cows at Bonnie Haugen's dairy farm near Canton, Minn., are seen walking past a field of forage. Haugen's farm is made up of pasture for the cows to graze. Haugen gets support from the federal Conservation Stewardship Program, whose fate is uncertain as congressional leaders try to strike a deal on the next farm bill.
Courtesy of Bonnie Haugen

While some compromise proposals have involved rolling the Conservation Stewardship Program into other farm bill conservation programs, Anderson said the program is unique because it helps farmers maintain conservation practices over time, rather than paying them for one-time improvements.

Darwyn Bach, who grows corn and soybeans near Boyd in western Minnesota, said for many years he's been able to tap Conservation Stewardship Program money to do variable-rate fertilizer applications, which involves sampling soil and figuring out exactly how much of each nutrient is needed in different parts of a field.

The practice can reduce the amount of fertilizer that could potentially run off into area rivers and streams, but it costs extra: He has to hire out the work to someone who has a newer machine that can do variable applications.

Bach said a few years ago, a lot of farmers in his area were trying the variable-rate practices. But as crop prices declined, more and more of them decided not to pay extra for the variable applications.

Bach said because the practice was part of his multi-year contract through the Conservation Stewardship Program, it wasn't just a one-time improvement for him.

"It's great to have that incentive payment there to try to establish a conservation practice, but once your contract is up, are you going to continue doing it?" Bach asked.

He said the Conservation Stewardship Program helps farmers maintain conservation practices, despite market factors that might make conservation harder to achieve in a given year. A federal ag department employee works one-on-one with farmers to figure out what conservation practices should be included in a multi-year contract with the government.

Bonnie Haugen, who grazes dairy cows near Canton in southeastern Minnesota, says the program has paid for her to keep land in forage — grassy fields for cows to graze — which results in less erosion than if she were growing corn and soybeans.

Scott Haase stands with a cover crop planter at his family’s farm.
Scott Haase stands with a cover crop planter at his family's farm in Blue Earth, Minn., on July 5, 2017. Haase cobbled together the planter from an old piece of equipment his dad had in the machine shed.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Preventing erosion isn't just good for her, she said: "The whole of society benefits. The soil is not carried away, running down into the streams, into the rivers and down to the Gulf of Mexico."

Some of the other practices Minnesota farmers are using that are supported through Conservation Stewardship Program money:

• Planting pollinator habitat
• Planting stands of trees to increase carbon sequestration or to provide windbreak to save energy costs
• Planting cover crops that can hold soil and nutrients in place when corn and soybeans aren't growing
• Planting a larger diversity of crops, such as adding small grains or alfalfa to a standard corn-and-soybean rotation
• Planting buffers along streams, rivers and ditches to reduce soil and nutrient runoff
• Reducing or eliminating tillage to improve soil health
• Transitioning to organic crops or organic livestock grazing
• Retrofitting pesticide and herbicide sprayers to prevent drift and over-use

House and Senate negotiators are expected to continue to work on a compromise bill they can send to the full Congress.

But if they hope to pass a farm bill before the end of the lame-duck session, their time is running out — and there's a lot of pressure to get something done because the current farm bill expired in September.