Farmers hail value of conservation programs

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2012 - 9:52 PM

Minnesota farm owner was among those telling Senate panel how grants build a better future.

WASHINGTON - The way Darrel Mosel sees it, federal conservation programs let him do what's best for his land without hurting his bottom line. On Tuesday, Mosel, a farmer from Gaylord, Minn., told the Senate Agriculture Committee that the five-year, $15,500-a-year conservation contract the government awarded him is "a good investment" for everyone.

Because of high commodity prices, "it would have been more profitable the last couple of years to plant my entire farm into one crop, like corn," Mosel said. "I was able to maintain a four-crop rotation, which helps reduce erosion and provides for greater wildlife habitat."

Mosel was among eight people who testified Tuesday, hoping to keep dozens of government conservation programs well funded in the 2012 farm bill that will govern most of the country's agricultural spending for the next five years.

The environmental and economic repercussions of conservation will play a role in farm bill negotiations. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., an Agriculture Committee member, highlighted Minnesota farmers' participation in those programs: second in wetlands protection, fourth in reserving farmland from cultivation, 10th in environmental quality incentives.

"Our state really believes in these programs," said Klobuchar. "We think it's been good for our recreation, hunting and fishing. And it's also been good for farming."

Budget deficits threaten to reduce funding to conservation programs, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year and include tens of thousands of farmers tending tens of millions of acres of agricultural land. Although the conservation part of a farm bill submitted to Congress' budget-cutting supercommittee last fall was hearty, talk of consolidating programs to save money persists.

"We now have duplicative programs that have become more and more complicated," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the committee's ranking minority member. "It's an alphabet soup."

Mosel, who grows corn, soybeans, grain and alfalfa and keeps milking cows on 600 acres 60 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, said the programs are needed.

"We're losing ground on soil," he said.

Earl Garber, a rice, soybean and hay farmer from Louisiana, was more direct.

"Additional cuts to conservation programs, above the proposed levels submitted to the supercommittee last fall, will put the very viability of these programs at risk," Garber told the Agriculture Committee. "Congress needs to determine whether conservation and protection of natural resources today is more important than the escalated costs of repair in the future."

Agricultural conservation and environmentally sensitive farming helps hunters and fishermen, representatives of Ducks Unlimited and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation testified.

Putting the funds to use

Using conservation stewardship funds and money from other agricultural programs, Mosel has placed contour strips on his land to reduce erosion. He has buffered waterways with vegetation to keep banks intact. He times applications of fertilizer to reduce the amount of water-polluting phosphorus and nitrogen that runs off his land.

He has paid for a global positioning system to make sure he doesn't overlap rows of crops when fertilizing. He tills his soil as little as possible even though "it's tempting to just go out and till heavily because we read that you can get better yields that way."

Mosel came to Washington as part of Minnesota's Land Stewardship Project. If federal conservation programs go away or get cut significantly, he said he will face tough decisions. Sustained increases in commodity prices could entice farmers to place more acres into cultivation as their conservation contracts with the government expire.

"Working in a time of record high commodity prices affects people's willingness to volunteer for conservation programs," David White, the chief of the government's Natural Resources Conservation Service, told the Agriculture Committee.

To keep perspective, Mosel tries to focus on the future and his two sons who one day hope to take over the family farm.

"Over a five-year period, I think [conservation] is going to be to my advantage," he said. "Definitely environmentally, and I think financially."

Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752

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