Sustainable Agriculture and Conservation Programs Under Federal Law
Modern techniques make agricultural activities more efficient and profitable, but they also can damage the land and the environment, while posing health hazards to humans and animals. Farming or ranching operations may cause problems such as:
Excessive use of fossil fuels
Diseases spread by the proliferation of animal waste
In response to these problems and others, legislators have supported a vision of sustainable agriculture. This involves a system of production practices that meet human needs and allow agricultural producers to make a living without degrading the environment and reducing quality of life for society. Like many abstract ideas, sustainable agriculture has not taken a clear form, and it can be interpreted in varying ways. Some producers have implemented practices such as erosion prevention strategies, crop rotation, and reduced use of fossil fuels and chemicals. In addition, conservation programs protect land, natural resources, and the environment from hazards created by agricultural production.
Land Retirement and Working Lands Programs
Conservation programs operated by the US Department of Agriculture provide incentives for producers and property owners of agricultural lands to voluntarily engage in conservation. These programs are administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency, with some assistance from other federal agencies. Conservation programs emerged as early as the 1930s, and currently the NRCS and the FSA manage over 20 programs.
Many conservation programs can be defined as land retirement programs. This means that they move agricultural property from a production use to a conservation use. Other conservation programs are considered working lands programs. Although they are similar to land retirement programs in that they establish conservation practices on agricultural property, working lands programs allow the property to still be used for agricultural production.
Increased Use of Working Lands Programs
Working lands programs programs once were greatly outnumbered by land retirement programs, but their use has increased over time.
Examples of Agricultural Conservation Programs
Two examples of working lands programs managed by the NRCS are the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Security Program. Seven sub-programs under EQIP help farmers and ranchers protect natural resources and the environment. They address issues such as air quality, water quality and conservation, erosion, and wildlife habitats. Similarly, CSP assists agricultural producers with conservation efforts involving air, water, soil, energy, plants, and animals. Producers who participate in this program may receive financial benefits and technical support.
An example of a land retirement program is the Conservation Reserve Program, which is managed by the FSA with NRCS assistance. CRP covers well over 20 million acres of agricultural property, which have been removed from production activities. Land eligible for CRP must be environmentally sensitive and vulnerable to erosion. Among other goals, the program aims to reduce soil erosion caused by agricultural activities. Farmers and ranchers can participate in the program by agreeing to contracts that last for 10 to 15 years. They receive assistance with issues regarding soil, water, and other natural resources.
Producers who have committed to sustainable agricultural practices may receive rewards through the Conservation Stewardship Program, previously known as the Conservation Security Program. A farmer must meet a stewardship threshold for at least one type of resource to qualify for benefits under this program. Benefits may include payments for implementing crop rotation systems and new techniques of conservation, or for continuing existing techniques.
Additional Government Agencies
Other agencies involved in promoting sustainable agriculture include:
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education: supports profitable but environmentally sensitive farming systems, while providing information to the public
National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service: provides information and technical support to producers engaging in sustainable agriculture practices
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center: provides resources about sustainable agriculture and food systems