A Farm Bill that Will Benefit Birds—and Us

A big win for the little guys.

There’s farmland for the buying in southern Indiana, but in recent years it hasn’t been moving much, even as the number of plowed acres has risen. “Farmland in my area is going for over $10,000 per acre,” says Ray McCormick, a fourth-generation farmer who grows corn, peaches, and soybeans near Vincennes. “But it only costs $2,000 per acre to clear woods.” That’s why farmers looking to expand their operations have been tempted to bulldoze woodlands on their property, drain any wetlands they encounter, and plant the newly created fields. Now, happily, those days are gone.

Under the surprisingly pro-conservation farm bill, which passed in February, farmers nationwide must adopt basic soil and wetlands protections to receive federal taxpayer-funded crop insurance. McCormick says farmers in his area widely support the move, since the vast majority of their farms already meet the requirements; by and large, they just have to refrain from plowing under any remaining sensitive land. It’s a major new safeguard for birds, particularly grassland species, which is the fastest declining bird group in North America, says Brian Moore, Audubon’s legislative director.

“Linking conservation compliance to crop insurance was Audubon’s top priority in the farm bill,” says Moore. “That will protect millions of acres of wetlands and reduce erosion.” In addition to working closely with elected leaders and other conservation groups, Audubon activated its extensive network, and thousands of members urged their Congressional representatives to support the provision. The biggest boon will be in the Great Plains, where wetlands that support hundreds of species of migratory birds have been drained at alarming rates over the past decade. There’s been a 50 percent loss in the Dakotas alone (see “The Edge of Insanity,” January-February 2014).

This is just one of the hard-won victories conservationists pushed for in the nearly $1 trillion Agricultural Act of 2014. President Obama signed the bill into law after three long years of bitter debates over farming subsidies and Republican efforts to slash food-stamp funding. Envi onmental advocates did take some hits: Funding for conservation programs fell $6.1 billion, to $57.6 billion over the next 10 years. “Pretty much every program took a cut,” including the food and nutrition program that makes up about 80 percent of the bill, says Julie Sibbing, senior director of agriculture and forestry programs at the National Wildlife Federation. “It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s still a huge win for wildlife.”

The Sodsaver provision is one of the bright spots. The 2005 Energy Policy Act spurred already growing demand for corn ethanol, and farmers could gamble and plant on never-before-plowed prairie, knowing that if the crop failed, they’d still make a profit, thanks to the insurance. “Less than 5 percent of our native grasslands are left, and there has been a perverse incentive to go out and destroy millions of acres,” says Sibbing. Under Sodsaver, farmers assume the risk: The percentage of the insurance premiums taxpayers cover will drop to 15 percent from 65 percent, leaving farmers who convert native grasslands to pick up most of the tab, a difference in cost that should tip the balance toward conservation. While a compromise in the final bill limits the program to just six states—North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska—they’re primarily in the Prairie Pothole region, where the protections are sorely needed.

The bill’s ecological dividends extend beyond simply stemming destruction. For instance, the Wetlands Reserve Program, which has restored nearly three million acres, now has permanent funding. “It means we don’t have to come back to each Congress and beg for money,” says Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the nonprofit National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The funding should cover restoration of about 60,000 acres per year. That’s significantly less than the 250,000 acres restored annually in recent years but a worthwhile trade-off in the long run, says Hoefner. “Hopefully the USDA will enroll the most important wetlands.”

A last morsel of good news: After long neglecting organic farmers, Congress is finally catching up with the times. Consumer demand for organically produced goods has seen double-digit annual growth, and organic sales now make up more than 3 percent of total U.S. food sales. The bill boosts funding for organics as well as on-farm energy conservation and farmers’ markets by more than 50 percent, to nearly $3 billion over the next decade (traditional commodities subsidies were cut by nearly 9 percent, to $12.7 billion). “Reducing nutrient runoff and pesticide use is good for birds and for us,” says Moore.

As more farmers go organic and wetlands recover, the farm bill benefits will crop up nationwide.

This story originally ran in the May-June 2014 issue as "Big Win for the Little Guys."