Farm Bill conservation programs provide critical support to rural communities. They enable farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners to stay in business providing the food, fiber, and fuel that our nation depends on, while also ensuring the health of fish and wildlife, clean air and water, and access to recreation, open space and other benefits that are valued by all Americans, both rural and urban.

Despite overwhelming pressure from interests on both sides of the food and agriculture debate about the need for serious reforms, Congress and the Obama administration are more focused on cuts than structural changes in the current Farm Bill debate.

Providing adequate funding for many much-needed conservation, nutrition and other important programs has fallen to the wayside. The Farm Bill is seen largely as a potential source of “found revenue” — a place to make up for deficits in other areas.

We believe that Congress can stretch the limited dollars allocated to these programs if it increases investment in the provision of technical assistance and building rural community capacity.

Programs must include adequate resources for outreach and education, and helping landowners meet program objectives.  Conservation programs have enormous potential to tap into local skills, knowledge and networks across rural communities.  It’s time for Congress to recognize – and utilize – that potential.

Local Capacity is the Solution

In a time of scarce budgets and growing need, the federal government should seize the opportunity to work closely with rural communities and foster public-private partnerships. Working with community-based organizations, soil and water conservation districts, state foresters and other local partners is the best way to get conservation programs on the ground.

Examples of the good work that can be accomplished through public-private partnerships can be found across the rural West:

  • In Klamath County, Oregon, the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust (KBRT) has partnered with the Department of Agriculture to increase rancher enrollment in the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP). Working together, KBRT and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) help landowners experiment with running cattle operations under reduced irrigation or complete dryland scenarios.

Because of KBRT’s efforts, today landowners on several thousand acres of pasture are managing their operations more efficiently, saving money and leaving more water for fish.

  • In the Blackfoot Watershed of Montana, the Blackfoot Challenge used a Conservation Innovation Grant to increase participation in a carcass pick up program aimed at reducing carnivore/livestock conflict in the area.

Blackfoot Challenge plays a key role building trust and increasing landowner participation in Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs. What’s more, they were able to reduce the cost of program delivery by 60 percent by offering a volunteer participation program for producers.

  • In the Siuslaw Basin of western Oregon, the local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) works in partnership with NRCS to promote small-acreage forestry through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The SWCD helps find willing landowners and assists in program application, delivery and implementation. Although limited by funding, this Farm Bill program continues to benefit the land and its owners and managers.

As Farm Bill debate unfolds, rural communities will benefit most if Congress stands up for conservation programs and provides the funding necessary for program delivery.  Rural communities have the knowledge, relationships and “boots on the ground” to assist the federal government in most effectively spending limited resources.

It’s Time to Take Action

Right now, we’re at the crux of action on the next Farm Bill. The Senate has passed its version, and the House Agriculture Committee has passed a first draft, sending it on to the full House.

The timeline for a Farm Bill vote in the full House is still highly uncertain. With only a couple more days in legislative session before the August recess, the House has not scheduled floor time for bill debate.  House leaders should prioritize reauthorization of this bill.

The crop-singeing drought that’s stretching across much of the country this summer offers a vivid example of the critical role the Farm Bill plays in protecting land and water in the U.S.

Done right, the Farm Bill can help farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to maximize their water use efficiency and increase the health of their land. It can help farmers and ranchers diversify their revenue streams, so that they have other sources of income to turn to when bad weather hits. A Farm Bill can also promote many scales of production, allowing small and medium landowners and businesses to flourish, strengthening rural economies and landscapes.

Our economic crisis is putting the squeeze on many federal programs that are vitally important for rural America and for our land and water. At the same time, extreme weather is rapidly becoming the norm, which means rural communities need support more than ever.

We urge Congress to realize that a small investment in rural community capacity for program delivery will significantly leverage federal conservation dollars.

Alaina Pomeroy, Program Associate, and Alice Williamson, Policy Associate, work at Sustainable Northwest; Julia Olmstead is Senior Associate at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Click here to read the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition’s recommendations for Increasing Community Capacity to Deliver Farm Bill Conservation Programs.  For a broader take on the Farm Bill’s possible impacts, see the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s “What’s at Stake in the 2012 Farm Bill” series.

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