Helping Farmers Who Help Wildlife

Collaborative effort yields wins for farmers, wildlife and water

08-04-2011 // Aislinn Maestas
Deer struggle in the flood

The extreme flooding of 2011 has affected thousands of Americans. Year to date, there have been 47 declared disasters and emergencies in the U.S. in response to the impacts of severe storms and flooding. These events have taken lives, destroyed communities and racked up millions, if not billions, of dollars in damages.

Here is a look at how the floods have impacted one sector of the economy, and how the solutions NWF helped craft made a real difference for people and wildlife:

Cover Crops

The idea behind cover crops is simple. After the summer’s cash crops have been harvested, cover crops are planted to keep soil and attached nutrients in place during winter and spring. This practice not only saves farmers money – cover crops can reduce herbicide and fertilizer costs and can provide extra forage for cattle herds – they carry numerous environmental benefits.

Cover crops absorb excess water during the winter and spring months and store that water for future use by cash crops. Cover cropped lands can reduce flooding by storing twice as much water as non-cover cropped field. By reducing erosion and in turn reducing nitrogen and phosphorous runoff, cover crops help prevent hypoxic (dead) zones from forming in nearby waters. In states like Ohio, where one lake has made headlines on account of its toxic algae blooms, cover crops are a solution that benefits farmers and helps cut down on water pollution, creating great habitat for fish. By providing habitat and forage, cover crops increase bird and deer populations.

Federal Crop Insurance

Farmers are able to reap the benefits of cover crops and receive federal crop insurance as long as they meet the guidelines laid out by the USDA Risk Management Agency. Under these guidelines, farmers must kill their cover crops in a timely fashion.

Another provision, called prevented planting, allows farmers to collect insurance when they are unable to plant their cash crop as a result of extreme weather events. However, in order to be eligible, the farmer must again kill their cover crops in a timely way.

In a typical year, most farmers are usually able to meet the requirements of the federal crop insurance program without any problems. This year, however, has been far from typical.

Flooded Fields

As this year’s record rainfall and flooding kept many farmlands under water or soaking wet for most of spring, farmers in Indiana, Illinois, Oklahoma and Michigan were unable to get out and kill their cover crops in time for deadlines set by the Risk Management Agency. Through no fault of their own, these farmers were at risk of losing their federal crop insurance eligibility. Fields that had been cover cropped were often ready for planting first—but in such a wet year, many fields could not be planted at all

We found ourselves in a situation where farmers trying to do the right thing for their operations and the environment were penalized because of a natural disaster,” said Eliav Bitan, National Wildlife Federation Agriculture Advisor. “We knew that if we didn’t find a way to make it right for these farmers, we would lose all the gains we had made in getting farmers to adopt cover crops.”

Finding a Solution

In an effort to help farmers and keep cover crops from being seen as a hindrance rather than a benefit, National Wildlife Federation joined with farmers, the USDA Risk Management Agency, and USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to find a solution. First, the Risk Management Agency moved their deadline for killing cover crops back into June. As a result, farmers were able to wait out the flooding, kill their cover crops and maintain their eligibility for federal crop insurance.

Then, with the help of Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Dick Lugar of Indiana, the Risk Management Agency declared that farmers who were unable to plant due to the severe weather conditions would not be required to kill their cover crops before filing for prevented planting insurance. Farmers can know that planting cover crops won’t jeopardize their insurance in such an unusual year.

“It was a win-win-win for people, wildlife and water,” said Bitan. “We’re thrilled to help farmers who are taking the lead in protecting wildlife and water as part of their healthy farming operations.”

Preparing for the Future

As extreme weather events become more common as a result of climate change, National Wildlife Federation is working to make sure programs like the federal crop insurance program are updated accordingly.

“These changes were made on the fly, creating a lot of unnecessary stress and panic for farmers and insurers,” said Bitan.  “We’re committed to continuing to work with farmers, conservationists and the USDA to make these programs climate smart for the future.”

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