What the Mississippi River needs from the new Farm Bill

A pair of hands examining the roots of a small, green plant that has been pulled from an agricultural field.

The Farm Bill will shape policies and funding for the next five-years. (Photo by USDA NRCS Montana)

FMR’s work to improve the health of the Mississippi River by tackling agricultural issues has, to this point, been focused on state-level advocacy. While this approach has been very productive (and will continue), we see an opportunity to think bigger by putting clean-water crops on the national stage.

Farm and food policy in Washington, D.C., operates differently than most of the other topics that preoccupy Congress and the White House, with much of this work being achieved via the Farm Bill.

This sprawling piece of legislation is negotiated every five years (give or take) and accounts for hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of spending on programs that address nutrition, commodity crop production, farmland conservation, research and more. 

Congress is currently ramping up negotiations with an eye toward passing the Farm Bill in late 2023 or early 2024, meaning we have a narrow — but still-open — window to try to shape this next five-year stretch of policies and funding.

How the Farm Bill comes together

Congress doesn’t just sit down and write legislation like the Farm Bill in one go – instead, lawmakers spend the months leading up to that debate to craft narrower, aspirational “marker bills” on specific topics, which may then be repackaged into the Farm Bill. Marker bills are a useful way to develop and build support for a concept because they give legislators and advocates something specific to react to.

There are many, many marker bills in play during this Farm Bill cycle. We’ve already mentioned one of them: the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA), which lays out a vision for a sustainable farm sector based upon voluntary conservation programs, scientific research, widespread adoption of soil health practices, and more. Other worthy marker bills that advance FMR priorities include:

  • The Whole Farm Revenue Protection Improvement Act would protect farmers with diversified operations by bridging a gaping hole in federal crop insurance policy, strengthening the safety net and making it less risky for farmers to grow non-commodity crops. This bill is crucial to ensuring that farmers can adopt novel systems such as perennial and “continuous living cover” rotations that protect our land and water.
  • The Local Farms and Food Act would build resilience in our local farming and nutrition systems and better serve the needs of smaller value chain operators.
  • The Increasing Land Access, Security, and Opportunities Act would enable beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers to establish stronger footholds in their chosen profession.

By encouraging Minnesota’s federal lawmakers to support these marker bills, we can help ensure the Farm Bill is built on a solid conservation footing.

A 'silver buckshot' approach

Now, as much as we would love it to be the case, clean-water crops aren’t a “silver bullet” solution for all of America’s agriculture problems. But they are an important component of what some experts have dubbed a “silver buckshot” strategy, where many smaller pieces can add up to a significant force for change. 

That’s why, as a member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), FMR is contributing to a community dialogue around these marker bills. We’re also advocating directly with our national delegation (Minnesota is lucky to have both Senators and two Representatives on the Agriculture Committees) to share our vision for Minnesota’s farming future.

If you’re interested in the bigger picture, you can check out NSAC’s Farm Bill Platform or this Farm Bill 101 webinar from our friends at the Mississippi River Network. 

6 things the Mississippi River needs from the next Farm Bill

#1: Investments in next-generation crop research for “continuous living cover”

Most of the 20th century’s great leaps forward in farming were dreamed up by scientists at public universities such as the University of Minnesota, whose world-class research efforts sent crops like corn, soy, and wheat skyrocketing in productivity. In recent decades, though, an ebb in federal spending means that research heft has largely shifted to private industry, where the public interest often takes a backseat to private profits, and where there tends to be a narrow focus on marginally improving tried-and-true crops like the ones I just mentioned. 

Given all we know about how modern cropping systems impact our environment and public health, it’s imperative to rebalance the scales and allow our keystone public research institutions to pursue innovations that deliver benefits beyond mere yield: landscape resilience, adaptation to climate change, soil health and better nutrition. 

Sustainable crop research and development is at the very core of FMR’s interest in agriculture, as exemplified by our partnership with the Forever Green Initiative. The premise of continuous living cover — living plants aboveground and living roots below, year-round — is the primary building block of a healthy farm landscape regardless of geography, and meshes seamlessly with other principles of soil health that farmers at every latitude are beginning to adopt. 

Introducing new, sustainable cash crops is long-term work with a massive – but delayed – payoff. With appropriate funding and prioritization in federal programs like NIFA, AFRI and FFAR, researchers around the country can tackle the challenge of diversifying crop rotations that deliver environmental benefits, even if the specific problems they’re attempting to remedy may be different than Minnesota’s “Big Brown Spot.” 

#2: Support for working lands and climate smart conservation funding

Since the bleak days of the Dust Bowl, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has incentivized conservation by paying farmers to implement certain practices on working croplands — everything from planting trees as windbreaks, to reducing soil tillage, to stopping planting on some acres entirely. Such “working lands” conservation programs (like EQIP, CSP and CRP) are valuable tools for farmers who want to be better stewards of their land. 

But Congress rarely funds these full demand for these programs, leaving many farmers unable to access  them. 

Recent federal spending bills  — most importantly, the Inflation Reduction Act — provided a much-needed infusion of money for USDA’s conservation programming, but Congressional opponents of sustainable agriculture are already trying to “claw back” those investments and slash allocations in the Farm Bill. 

We have a battle on our hands to avoid backsliding.

#3: Investments in continuous living cover value chain development

Farming is an enterprise that stretches well beyond the fields. 

Farmers need equipment, seed and fertilizers to help grow their crops. They need feed or pasture for livestock. They need businesses that service that equipment, and businesses to which they can sell their harvest. Like most other products we buy, there are dozens or hundreds of commercial and community interactions that happen between the farm gate and our dinner tables, a web of inter-reliance known collectively as a “value chain” that varies from crop to crop.

Established crops such as corn benefit from well-established value chains that have developed over generations. Farmers know that if they want to grow corn, there are plenty of businesses from which to buy equipment or services, and an all-but-guaranteed sale into a global commodity market. New or emerging crops — think hazelnuts or perennial grains — usually don’t have this ready-made value chain, so farmers and businesses that want to grow these crops face an uphill climb to market. 

Growing clean water crops only works in the long term if farmers can make money doing it, so in tandem with on-farm progress, we have to help develop value chains. Here in Minnesota, FMR helped to establish one important new program that awards grants to local businesses involved in such work for crops like Kernza, winter oilseeds, hazelnuts and elderberries, and FMR is pursuing ways to make similarly targeted investments through the Farm Bill on a broader scale.

In addition, we’re exploring repurposing the (currently dormant) Biomass Crop Assistance Program as a place-based scaling system for winter-hardy annual oilseeds in the upper Midwest. Winter oilseeds have a bright future as a sustainable fuel, and we want to lay the groundwork in a way that benefits our local communities and the environment.

#4: Improved access to conservation programs

Many of the nation’s farmland conversation programs are coordinated through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). 

However, as many of FMR’s partners are unhappy to attest, the application processes can be unusually complex and time-consuming — driving away potential applicants. The NRCS can address this with efforts to make it easier for farmers, ranchers and landowners to obtain help; and easier for agencies, organizations and other partners to access programs like the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP).

#5: Enhanced Conservation Technical Assistance

Farmland conservation isn’t just a matter of scattering milkweed pods around for pollinators; it takes a fair amount of technical know-how to reconstruct wetlands or do a prescribed burn, and a generation of budget cuts means that experienced USDA specialists are in short supply. 

When it comes to new crops like Kernza perennial grain or winter camelina, few government employees have had the opportunity to study and practice agronomic techniques. Even CLC systems that have been around for eons but fell out of favor in recent decades, like integrating livestock with tree crops, are difficult to support without hands-on experience. 

USDA is working to address its workforce challenges, but we still have to ensure that this generation of crop advisors (whether public employees or private companies) is well-versed in continuous living cover practices.

#6: Updates to the Federal Crop Insurance Program

Many farm operations take out crop insurance to manage risk. About 60% of the premiums for that insurance are covered by taxpayers through the U.S Farm Bill, to the tune of about $8 billion every year.

However, most of this largesse goes toward supporting corn, soy, and other commodity crops, whereas producers who embrace continuous living cover cropping systems often meet barriers to insuring their operations – despite the fact that crop diversity and other conservation practices associated with such systems tend to reduce risk.

FMR would like to see Congress embrace perennials and summer/winter-annual continuous living cover systems through programs like the Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program. Similarly, support for other diversified crop and livestock systems could be leveraged through programs like the Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program.

A second type of strategy involves discounts on crop insurance premiums for certain conservation practices that make farms more resilient and less subject to losses from extreme weather. 

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