A Better Farm Future Starts With the Soil

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Author: Alyssa Charney | Published: September 19, 2107

Within the next year Congress will reauthorize the massive amalgamation of legislation we commonly refer to as “the farm bill.” The farm bill, which is reauthorized every five years, has major implications for every part of our food and farm system and covers issues including but certainly not limited to: conservation, nutrition, local food, credit and finance, research and commodity subsidies.

Although healthy soil is one of the essential building blocks of agriculture, historically the issue has not been a major focus of the farm bill – as some farmers would say, soil has been treated like dirt. With extreme weather events on the rise and farmers and foresters feeling the effects of a changing climate, however, soil health is now at the forefront of our national conversation.Soil health is critical for agriculture and natural resource management because only healthy soil can effectively cycle nutrients and capture and store water, which sustains plant and crop life and helps to build resilient, productive agricultural systems. As our most significant package of food and farm legislation approaches expiration on September 30, 2018, many are asking: How can the farm bill support resilient farms, address natural resource concerns and increase productivity? A key part of the answer: promote soil health.

At the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, we’ve been working with our membership for 30 years to create and expand programs and policies that support soil health – an effort we’ll continue in the 2018 farm bill.

Conservation

Healthy soil depends on conservation management practices that invigorate its ability to cycle nutrients, capture and store water, and sequester carbon from the air. The farm bill authorizes several technical and financial assistance programs that support farmers and ranchers in these activities, including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Together, these two programs serve as the heart of the USDA’s working lands conservation portfolio.

Through EQIP, participants can take the first step in soil health management by integrating practices such as cover crops, conservation cover, prescribed grazing, range planting and nutrient management. When farmers are ready to step up to even more advanced conservation systems, they can access CSP, which can be used to target soil health improvements, including diversified crop rotations and high-level rotational grazing, on a farmer’s entire operation.

The next farm bill should enhance the long-term funding base for both working lands programs and ensure an ongoing and growing focus on improving soil health. In addition, the farm bill should make sure that USDA has the authority and funding it needs to measure and report on program outcomes. This provides accountability for taxpayers and ensures USDA has the information it needs to modify and improve conservation programs to ensure that they are creating solutions to priority resource concerns, including soil health.

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