Build the agriculture industry for the long run
Policymakers in Washington and across the United States are involved in a dialogue around infrastructure: what it is, what it does, and what kind of investment it requires in order to position our country for success.
For those of us who work in agriculture, this is a welcome conversation — and a critical discussion as we position our industry for success in the future. A future in which we must be able to raise enough food for all the people on the planet to eat without destroying the means to produce. We must learn to live on the interest without destroying the principal.
Here in Iowa, agriculture is a central part of life. Nearly 90% of land in the state is part of our more than 85,000 farms, mine included. Iowa’s farmers supply nearly 20% of the U.S. corn and soybean crop, as well as nearly 20% of U.S. pork and 17% of U.S. table eggs.
In addition to feeding millions of people across the nation and around the world, we serve as an essential part of America’s economy and employment ecosystem; in 2019 alone, the United States agriculture industry supported 22.2 million full- and part-time jobs, making up nearly 11% of total U.S. employment.
It is clear that America’s success depends on the strength of agriculture; and the success of our agriculture industry depends on on-farm conservation and sustainability practices. Increasingly, extreme weather events like floods, drought and tornadoes are impacting ecosystems in the Midwest and across the country.
As the global population increases, our farms are required to feed an ever-larger number of consumers. If we want to ensure that farmers, ranchers and foresters of the future can meet the needs of the moment, we need to engage now to ensure the resources that make our way of life possible can endure.
I began experimenting with conservation practices about as soon as I started farming. On my organic farm where I grow corn, soybeans, alfalfa and small grains, I use contour rows, reduced till, no-till, cover crops, and prairie strips to conserve the land and enrich the soil.
Thanks to help from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Xerces Society, I’m able to get funding and find the resources I need to successfully implement new conservation tactics. But to be effective, they have to be applied. I have the only CSP contract in my county. Many farmers are not even aware of the opportunities. Certainly, a significant investment in conservation practices at the federal level is required.
But it isn’t enough simply to provide access to funding for conservation. We need to increase awareness of these opportunities and support landowners and businesses with technical assistance that helps them apply available resources in the most impactful ways possible.
In some cases, that might mean expanding and broadening resources at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help determine which conservation measures will work best for individual tracts of land. In others, it might involve developing new and innovative programs and teams that can guide transitions to more sustainable agricultural practices. In all areas, it will require long-term investment and financial support.
The need for expansion is clear. Today, farmers managing millions of acres of land lack the resources to invest in vital conservation practices. In recent years, around 85% of all American farms did not receive conservation payments at all. If we can expand funding, we can vastly increase the work that individual farmers and ranchers can do to ensure healthy ecosystems for years to come.
In the heartland, farmers have a strong, unique connection to the land, and we understand the role that agriculture plays in the fight against climate change, environmental degradation, and declining quality of food and water. It’s time for Washington to realize it too.
When I think about what conservation means to me, I come back to the old saying, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” I use conservation techniques because when I pass my farm on to the next generation, I want it to be in better condition than when I began. For this reason, as we support and strengthen the agriculture industry, we need to build for the long term so that it can continue to benefit people in Iowa, across the United States and around the world.
Paul Mugge farms a small, family, organic farm in northwest Iowa where stewardship and ecology guide his attempts at sustainability.