The federal government has a long history of involvement in U.S. agriculture conservation programs, as well as other facets of production agriculture.  Congress and various presidents, Republicans and Democrats, have had about equal say in the formation of the farmland conservation legislation and other agricultural programs that have gradually evolved into what exists today.

Abraham Lincoln established the Department of Agriculture–but without cabinet status–in 1862, setting the precedent that the regulation of agriculture was a federal government responsibility.  That same year the Morrill Act established land grant universities to undertake scientific research and educate people in agriculture, home economics, mechanical arts and related professions to improve the quality of life in rural areas.  

The Hatch Act of 1887 was approved by a Republican-leaning Congress, and the first Democratic president after the Civil War, Grover Cleveland, to establish federally-funded agricultural experiment stations in each state.  Cleveland also signed legislation in 1889 elevating the Department of Agriculture to the same status as other federal departments, such as the Departments of War, Treasury, State and Interior. 

The Cooperative Extension was created by Congress through the Smith-Lever Act in 1914.  The purpose was, and mostly still is, to set up partnerships between the USDA and land grant agricultural colleges to share knowledge about improving agricultural production with farmers, their families and rural communities. 

The Great Depression of the 1930s led to the first federal purchases of agricultural goods to improve market demand for agricultural products, commodity storage loans and federally funded food and nutrition programs for undernourished people.   Both consumers and farmers who were struggling with insufficient income benefitted. 

The concept of removing farmland from crop production and placing it into reserve status with cover crops, along with some form of federal payment to not farm the land, also was initiated during the Great Depression by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration and Congress to reduce soil erosion and improve farm crop prices.  Farming practices such as the installation of terraces to reduce erosion, and the authorization of wetlands and other protected wildlife and habitat areas, began during this Democratic era. 

Since then, the USDA programs have continued under mostly Republican administrations and congresses that expanded earlier versions of these measures, but with new names.   The Soil Bank Program operated during the 1950s and early 1960s and the present-day Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) began in 1985 in response to the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. 

Most present-day USDA programs, like beginning farmer loans, placing grain in storage with loan guarantees, school lunch and child nutrition programs, and underwriting agricultural enterprise and rural community development with federal funds, trace to earlier farm legislation from the 1930s and the 1980s farm crisis eras.  When the farm economy is booming the programs are cut back, only to be renewed when the farm economy sinks.

Why do we keep doing this over and over again, some farmers ask.  A September 21, 2011 High Country News article answered the question this way: “When farm crop prices rise, farmers plant fencerow to fencerow, even on marginal land where the soil washes off or blows away.  When prices inevitably drop, many farmers enroll some of their less-valuable land in federal conservation programs, removing it from production.” 

Megan Stubbs of the Congressional Research Service says “the 2014 Farm Bill reauthorized, repealed, consolidated and amended a number of conservation programs,” but basically kept most earlier programs in some form, although both nutrition and conservation measures were reduced.  The 2014 Farm Bill, which was enacted when most crop prices were still relatively high compared to today’s much lower prices, decreased conservation funding by $4 billion over ten years. 

CRP acreage enrollment was reduced from the previous 32 million acres to 24 million acres in FY2018, but now some commentators say setting aside farmland is needed again.  Critics of the current Farm Bill note the bill strengthened crop insurance provisions but may have actually weakened protections of the important resources for farming: land, water and air. 

Will Congress strengthen farmland set-aside and resource conservation programs when needed now?  It’s doubtful, because the current congress is politically hamstrung.  

Farmers themselves can voluntarily replant filter strips and hilly land and find creative ways to earn income from them, such as leasing hunting rights.  But it is unlikely farmers will undertake these practices without better incentives.

Several groups have recommended that state governments and private organizations step into the gap to pay farmers for multiple uses of their land, such as for conservation, hunting, fishing, hiking and camping.   Some add that it is hypocritical for states that have budget surpluses and corporations that have accrued large profits to not protect the land and other resources from which they benefit.

Adequate farming income and conservation of resources are both necessary.  Common sense solutions are needed at state and private levels and then federal programs that were cut back won’t have to be adjusted again. 

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