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Conservation on the farm - For fun and profit

By Wylie Harris

(Sunday, May 16, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Conservation and agriculture have long been neighbors, and even partners. But the prevailing idea in both private and government land-management seems to be that more of one means less of the other.

The Nature Conservancy probably has the best record of any conservation group for working with rather than against farmers, but it still perceives agriculture more as a threat to endangered species than as a potential partner in conservation. Federal farm conservation programs betray the same bias, spending 70 percent of their budget to retire land from production, rather than finding ways to conserve and produce on the same acreage.

Of the once-vast acreage of original native prairie on the fertile soils of the Plains states, less than one percent now remains. No matter how stringently those tiny pockets are protected, there simply aren't enough of them to support all the species, filter all the water, and build all the soil that they once did. It only makes sense that the farm fields and pastures that replaced the prairie should do the same jobs. Conservation will have a much broader reach if we practice it in, rather than instead of, agriculture.

Plenty of enterprising farmers are doing just that. Working with the Land Stewardship Project, Minnesota farmers compared conventional corn and soybean systems with more diversified operations, including rotational grazing on pasture. Adding pastures reduced the amount of sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus in streams by 60 to 80 percent.

It also upped the number of different bird species by 33 percent - and much more, if farmers added trees and grass alongside fences and streams. Other Plains farmers are keeping all their acres in corn and soybeans, but growing them organically. Though organic farming doesn't create the wildlife benefits of replacing row crops with pasture, it does keep soil out of the streams, and contaminants out of the soil.

Some of these changes bring a cost in lost farm subsidy dollars. For instance, every acre converted from commodity crops to pasture means a drop in federal farm payments. But the reduced costs and new income streams of some conservation measures can offset those losses, and even bring higher profits. Startup and input costs in rotational grazing are low enough that even beginning farmers can find the economics favorable. Organic farmers often get premium prices for their crops. Even if not, the lower inputs - and the drought resistance conferred by higher levels of organic matter in the soil - can still raise their profits.

On-farm conservation doesn't have to happen in giant steps, or all at once. A few years back, we fenced off a few acres of native pasture for haying. Every year since then, the native plants have been more lush, the bobwhite quail more numerous, and our winter hay costs lower. When it pays to put living truth in the old romantic notions of farmers as independent stewards of the land, it's no wonder more and more of us are blending agriculture and conservation on our own.

About the Author - Wylie Harris ranches with his family on their fifth generation cow-calf operation in Texas. At Texas A &M, he is working on range ecology. He is also a member of the 2003-2005 class of Food and Society Policy Fellows, a national program funded in part by the Kellogg Foundation, administered by the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute and the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy.

This piece was originally published in the Northern Plains Family Farmer, March 2004.

It's available at: http://www.bowviewfarm.com/FamilyFarmer.shtml