New Report: Strong Farm Bill Key to Great Lakes Restoration

Farm conservation programs producing results; but improvements can be made

03-21-2012 // Jordan Lubetkin
Farm wetland in Michigan

In a new report issued today, the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition is urging federal public officials to strengthen and support successful farm conservation programs that are vital to restoring the health of the Great Lakes. Read the full report here (PDF).

“Farm conservation programs are essential for Great Lakes restoration,” said Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “Farm conservation programs are producing results, but there is more work to do. Cutting support for these successful programs now will cause problems to get worse and more costly to solve.”

The report, “The Case for Federal Farm Bill Conservation Programs in the Great Lakes Region,” documents how conservation measures on farms across the region are protecting natural resources, helping farmers improve productivity and providing jobs.

The report comes as U.S. legislators embark on revising the federal Farm Bill, the primary agriculture and food policy tool of the federal government that includes one of the largest sources of conservation funding in the federal budget: The Great Lakes states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin receive more than $500 million in conservation funding annually through the Farm Bill.

The degree to which the new Farm Bill helps Great Lakes restoration efforts may hinge on the actions of federal public officials from the Great Lakes region—particularly in the U.S. Senate, which is leading the effort to update the Farm Bill. The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry is chaired by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and includes members Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).

The stakes are high. In recent years, the Great Lakes have witnessed a resurgence of toxic algae blooms, which close beaches, kill fish and harm local businesses. The algae blooms have resurfaced due to a combination of factors: sewage overflows that spill billions of gallons of sewage into the lakes annually; the explosion of aquatic invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels that have turned the food web on its head; and industrial agricultural practices that allow excessive nutrients from fertilizer and manure to run off into rivers, streams and eventually the Great Lakes, harming water quality.

Federal Farm Bill conservation programs provide financial support to farmers who take specific actions on their farms to protect the environment, such as protecting wildlife habitat or controlling pollution.

“Farm conservation works,” said Gildo Tori, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited. “Programs like the Wetlands Reserve Program provide a tremendous benefit by improving water quality and providing important wildlife habitat. It’s clear that Farm Bill programs benefit farmers, the Great Lakes and the economy.”

In the last two federal budgets, however, the U.S. Congress has cut Farm Bill conservation programs by more than $1 billion. President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget recommends further reductions of more than $400 million. The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition is urging lawmakers to restore conservation funding in the Farm Bill.

“Farmers across the region are embracing conservation practices that yield long-term results,” said Melissa Malott, water program director for Clean Wisconsin. “These actions are helping protect water quality, but there’s more to do. That’s why it’s essential for Congress to support a strong Farm Bill.”

The new report offers several recommendations to get more bang for the buck from federal Farm Bill programs, including:

  • Invest more, not less, on farm conservation programs;
  • Support a new regional restoration program;
  • Connect crop insurance subsidies to conservation compliance;
  • Eliminate provisions that incentivize habitat destruction; and,
  • Target programs on the worst problems.

"It’s clear that we need to do more,” said Don Scavia, University of Michigan professor of natural resources and the environment, and special counsel to the university’s president for sustainability. “Now’s not the time to scale back our efforts. We need to maintain support for federal farm conservation programs and find ways for projects to be targeted so that the funds are used where needed the most.”

The national discussion about the direction of the Farm Bill comes amidst an historic federal effort to restore the Great Lakes. For the last three years, the U.S. Congress and Obama Administration have worked together in a bi-partisan manner to invest more than $1 billion to clean up the lakes through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which funds projects to clean up toxic pollution, prevent polluted run-off, restore habitat and wetlands and confront the introduction of aquatic invasive species like the Asian carp. Some of the money from the initiative flows through federal Farm Bill programs, which pays farmers to set aside fields as wetlands or conservation reserves, or to better manage their fertilizer or waste.

“Great Lakes restoration and farm conservation go hand-in-hand,” said Joe Logan, director of agriculture programs for the Ohio Environmental Council. “Farmers have a unique role to play in protecting our Lakes, our drinking water and our way of life.

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition consists of more than 120 environmental, conservation and outdoor recreation organizations, zoos, aquariums and museums representing millions of people, whose common goal is to restore and protect the Great Lakes. Learn more at http://healthylakes.org

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