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Statement of

John Hassell, Executive Director

Conservation Technology Information Center

National Association of Conservation Districts

to the

Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

Relative to Conservation Programs in the Farm Bill

March 1, 2001

Good morning Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. I am John Hassell, executive director of the Conservation Technology Information Center, commonly known as CTIC. Established in 1982 by a group of agribusiness, governmental agency and agricultural association representatives, CTIC functions as an off-site branch of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD).

CTIC operates under the charter of NACD, which is a nonprofit conservation organization, representing the nation’s nearly 3,000 conservation districts. An independent 25-member board, with input from 9 cooperating federal agencies, administers CTIC’s public/private partnership.  The CTIC Board of Directors comprises representatives from agribusiness, farm press, agricultural associations, conservation groups as well as independent agricultural producers.  CTIC is a self-supporting organization with resources derived from corporate, institutional and individual memberships, agency funds, foundations and other sources. CTIC’s mission is to develop partnerships that promote the enhancement of soil and water quality by equipping agriculture with realistic, affordable and integrated solutions. Located at Purdue University Research Park, CTIC receives in-kind support from the Indiana land grant university as well as other land grant and international institutions.

 

Background

 

CTIC has long been promoting the adoption of conservation tillage and residue management. During the late 1980s and mid-1990s, CTIC supported the 1985 Farm Bill by implementing a national promotion of conservation tillage as a means to reducing soil erosion on agricultural croplands.

 

When CTIC began operation in 1983, 10 percent of the nation’s cropland used some form of conservation tillage, or cropland systems that leave about one-third of the soil covered with crop residue after planting. CTIC and its partners established a national Crop Residue Management (CRM) initiative to help producers implement their conservation compliance plans, which were required for producers to remain eligible for federal farm program benefits. Adoption of conservation tillage, especially no-till (where residue is undisturbed until planting), steadily increased as producers sought farming techniques for saving soil, improving efficiency and improving their bottom line.  More than 75 percent of compliance plans included residue management because of its economically efficient method of reducing soil losses from cropland.

 

The CRM initiative was a success. No-till adoption increased 125 percent from 1990 to 1994. In addition, as conservation tillage adoption increased, soil erosion decreased.  The initiative succeeded because: (1) the public/private partnership work toward a common goal, (2) new technology enabled successful no-till cropping systems and (3) a national marketing campaign delivered a consistent message about the benefits of crop residue management.

 

 

Figure 1. Soil loss decreased as conservation tillage adoption increased from 1987 to 1994. Since then, both soil loss and conservation tillage levels have changed little. Sources: Soil loss data from NRCS National Resources Inventory, 2000. Conservation Tillage data from CTIC National Crop Residue Management Survey, 2001.

 

 

Figure 2. Conservation tillage adoption in the United States has leveled off in the last five years. Source: Conservation Tillage data from CTIC National Crop Residue Management Survey, 2001.

 

After the CTIC partnership ended the CRM initiative, both conservation tillage adoption and soil erosion reduction leveled off, showing minimal increase in the last five years (see Figure 1). Conservation tillage usage in 2000 was 36.6 percent of total cropland acres (see Figure 2).

 

Another of CTIC’s principal roles is providing scientifically accurate and credible information on various conservation technologies to the people and entities that influence farm management decisions. As a technology transfer center, CTIC reviews and communicates new research, technologies and innovative approaches and connects the people who practice conservation on the ground with those specialists who can help them.

 

I would like to present to you today information concerning challenges facing agriculture, a campaign that has been initiated by CTIC that all sectors of agriculture can embrace, and recommendations for the next generation of Farm Bill conservation programs. 

 

Challenges Facing Agriculture  

Environmental Issues.  According to the 1998 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) national 305(b) report on the quality of the nation’s water resources, a majority of states name agriculture as the leading source of nonpoint source (NPS) pollution and identify sediment, nutrients, pesticides, salts and pathogens as agriculture-related pollutants that affect water quality.  EPA reported that approximately one-third of monitored river miles, lake areas and other water bodies do not fully support their designated uses.  

The 1997 National Resources Inventory reported an excessive erosion rate of nearly 12 tons an acre on 112 million acres of cropland (1.3 billion tons of soil lost a year).  Of those 112 million acres, more than 60 million are highly erodible cropland and nearly 52 million acres are non-highly erodible cropland. Eroding cropland sends sediment and attached pesticides or nutrients to water bodies, affecting water quality.  Although 50 percent of cropland acres are suitable for some form of conservation tillage to mitigate soil loss, no-till is used on 17.5 percent and continuous no-till (a no-till system used for more than five years) is used on only 7-10 percent of total cropland acres. 

Eroding topsoil also carries with it nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrate, to nearby waterways.  Excessive phosphorus in fresh water bodies can lead to algal blooms, fish kills and unhealthy streams and lakes.  Soils that receive excessive manure application, which increases soil phosphorus levels, are subject to soluble phosphorus loss. In addition, excessive phosphorus levels are thought to play a role in the “Pfeisteria” pathogenic outbreaks experienced in recent years.

Nitrate, a water-soluble nutrient, can be transported by surface runoff, subsurface drains, or as leachate.  Consequently, nitrate can be a problem in both surface waters and in groundwater.  Some water bodies used as drinking water sources experience regular drinking water warnings when nitrate levels exceed the safe drinking water standard.  Excessive nitrate also can impact fish and wildlife beneficial uses of streams and lakes and has been identified as the primary nutrient responsible for the hypoxic “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Other environmental and regulatory issues facing agricultural producers include Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans (CNMPs), source water protection and global warming.

Although NPS pollution programs and agriculture conservation programs exist, few if any address all problems and most lack adequate funds.

Economic Issues.  Current low commodity prices have decreased profits for many producers. Producers also are paying increasingly more for fuel and nitrogen fertilizer.  Commodity supports, which could be phased out by 2002, continue in record quantities. Meanwhile, many medium-sized farms have been forced to close, in most cases as part of farm consolidation. Although alternative management options exist, many producers resist changing their operation because of perceived financial, managerial and social risks. In global markets, the world food supply surplus and the Asian economic decline reduced exports and lowered prices. 

These economic challenges and complicated environmental issues clearly indicate that America’s agriculture needs a new direction, one that institutionalizes conservation into farm management without compromising profitability or long-term sustainability.  As we begin to discuss revisions to the current Farm Bill, we must address the environmental issues facing our nation, while attending to the economic concerns of our farming community.

 

Finding a New Direction:  Core 4 Conservation

The National Research Council’s 1993 recommendations in “Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture,” defined four broad opportunities for preventing soil degradation and water pollution while sustaining a profitable agricultural sector.  The council recommended that successful programs would do the following:

  1. conserve and enhance soil quality as the first fundamental step to environmental improvement,

  2. increase the resistance of farming systems to erosion and runoff,

  3. increase nutrient, pesticide, and irrigation use efficiency, and

  4. make greater use of field and landscape buffer zones.

Answering the Council’s call for a national policy that included all four elements, CTIC led more than 50 national partners in the development of a new approach to managing agricultural operations. In the late 1990s, CTIC commissioned market research surveys to test the concept with growers, livestock producers and information multipliers - the agricultural specialists helping producers make management decisions. The research recommended that any attempt to change agricultural management practices should:

  1. position conservation as a unified system;

  2. recognize both the social responsibility of the producer regarding environmental management and the economic benefits of a system of complementary practices; and

  3. show that combining environmental management with profitability can result in better, more affordable consumer goods and a better future for the producer, the family and the community.

Combining recommendations from the National Research Council and America’s agricultural community, CTIC and its partners designed an approach to agricultural management that protects and improves the land while addressing on-farm profits. This innovative method considers productivity and conservation equally; it enables farmers to reclaim their position as America's original environmental stewards while protecting their livelihood; and it involves all sectors of agriculture, including government, industry and farmers. This new approach is called Core 4 Conservation.

The goals of Core 4 Conservation -- Better Soil, Cleaner Water, Greater Profits and a Brighter Future  --  are based in common sense. Promoting these goals demonstrates our recognition of the inextricable link between profitability and environmental protection in modern agriculture, something past federal programs have not always accomplished. Improving our nation's soil and water resources  - the raw materials of agriculture - enables producers to realize short-term benefits as well as long-term sustainability of their operations. The Core 4 Conservation approach helps producers realize productive, profitable land operations today and increases the likelihood that the operation can be passed on to their heirs.

Following the principles of Core 4 Conservation, producers implement a system of land treatment practices. This systems approach combines several appropriate conservation practices to maximize operation efficiency, minimize costly inputs, and achieve optimal results, both in
terms of environmental stewardship and profitability. Practices that may be used in a Core 4 Conservation system include conservation tillage, crop nutrient management, pest management (Integrated Pest Management) conservation buffers, water management (including irrigation, conservation, and tile drainage), and other site-specific practices. Working with local advisors, including conservation district personnel, district conservationists, extension agents, certified crop advisors and others, producers select appropriate conservation practices and design a site-specific system that minimizes soil erosion, enhances water infiltration and retention, filters pollution from runoff, and more efficiently manages inputs to increase profits.

Scientists and other experts estimate that this approach can reduce NPS pollution from cropland by as much as 80 percent. For example, no-till reduces soil erosion by up to 90 percent and pesticide runoff by up to 70 percent when compared to a more traditional, intensive tillage system. No-till has also been estimated to increase soil carbon by up to 20 percent.  Conservation buffers, as a secondary practice used in the systems approach, remove 50 percent or more of nutrients and pesticides and 75 percent or more of sediment in runoff.

I want to emphasize that environmental benefits alone do not make Core 4 Conservation a truly innovative approach. With Core 4 Conservation systems, producers can, with assistance from local advisors, develop a management plan that considers their local constraints, including farm size, management capability and financial condition. In this way, the resulting design is a locally led system that meets economic needs as well as conservation goals.

Producers benefit economically with Core 4 Conservation as well. For example, on a 2,000-acre farm using 100 percent no-till, fuel savings could be 3.6 gallons per acre or 7,200 gallons in a year, according to Purdue University’s “Energy Requirements for Various Tillage-Planting Systems.” That same farm would have improved soil quality and, as a result, may realize higher yields. Plus, with a more diversified crop rotation, producers can increase yields and/or profits and extend their production. Some farmers are capitalizing on their conservation practices by marketing their “green”/environmentally friendly production methods and selling crops at premium prices.

The Core 4 Conservation approach encourages voluntary participation to increase conservation in the countryside. Demonstrating that this approach is as at least as profitable as traditional methods enhances participation rates. Core 4 Conservation is flexible, locally led and site-specific. It can address multiple objectives yet is founded in common sense and is comprised of elements with which the typical producer is already familiar.

The Evolution of Farm Management Plans

Many past government efforts emphasized using farm conservation plans to meet its own program requirements, rather than the needs of the overall farm operation. As a result, crop production plans and conservation plans often did not complement one another. The producer was left asking the question: Which plan do I implement – the conservation practices or the production recommendations?   

Risks, whether actual and perceived, discourage many producers from trying new farming techniques or enrolling in conservation programs. New equipment, for example, may need to be purchased to implement some practices.  If a producer changes from conventional tillage to a conservation tillage system, he/she may need to spend between $40,000 and $100,000 on new equipment. That’s a big risk for anyone to take. Furthermore, producers may question the validity of such an investment if they doubt that the new practice will increase yields. Turning cropland areas to buffer zones means taking land out of production, and that brings into question the long-term economic implications of reducing productive acres. Only producers with adequate resources and a willingness to take risks will make significant changes in their farming operation. Unfortunately, these innovators and early adopters represent only a small section of the agricultural community.

The vast majority of producers, including mainstream and the late adopters, find little incentive in existing conservation programs (other than CRP). Too few cost share dollars plus conflicting information from input management advisors creates a risk that outweighs the rewards. These producers require more assurances or incentives before they will abandon traditional farming methods and adopt conservation practices.

A New Approach Appeals to Agriculture

By tying production to conservation, Core 4 Conservation addresses many of the risks that prevent producers from making changes in their operations.

Core 4 Conservation engages the public/private partnership in a united effort to meet short-term and long-term goals. It recognizes that no two producers have the same operation, and every producer will have different needs when changing their operation to more widely incorporate conservation practices. Most producers will make one or two changes in a year and then carefully
assess risks and results before taking the next step. One plan or one program, therefore, will not meet every producer's needs.

With credible and reliable support from local advisors, producers can create a long-term vision for their operation, both economically and environmentally. Instead of sifting through numerous programs and lists of requirements, producers and their advisors select those conservation practices that best address the production/conservation interactions of production agriculture and apply them as a system. Instead of trying to fit the sometimes demanding criteria of governmental programs, more producers will voluntarily apply conservation practices as a Core 4 Conservation system to produce food, fiber and energy while protecting the environment.

In describing Core 4 Conservation, I have presented a banner for all agriculture to rally under. Who can argue with Better Soil, Cleaner Water, Greater Profits and a Brighter Future? This innovative approach also complements recommendations for the next generation Farm Bill, which propose incentives for adoption of conservation practices. In addition, national endorsement of Core 4 Conservation would simultaneously promote the conservation goals of the next generation Farm Bill.  CTIC is strategically suited to promote adoption of conservation systems through its extensive public/private partnership network and to replicate its successful efforts with conservation tillage adoption increase in the early 1990s.

As a participant in the NACD Farm Bill Task Force, CTIC contributed the Core 4 Conservation philosophy to the task force’s recommendations for the conservation title of the next Farm Bill. NACD convened the task force, which includes public and private sector representatives, in January 1999 and published its final report, “Vision for Conservation in the 2002 Farm Bill,” in January 2001.

The task force recommendations are a vehicle for reaching the Core 4 Conservation goals and linking profitability and environmental protection in modern agriculture.

CTIC and its Board of Directors support the following recommendations of the NACD Farm Bill Task Force. All Farm Bill conservation programs should:

·     maintain voluntary, incentive-driven programs to help private landowners and managers protect our soil, water, wildlife and related resources;

  • increase local involvement in setting priorities, developing policies and carrying out programs;

  • utilize science-based technology in making conservation decisions, including those for determining accountability and establishing appropriate baselines;

  • increase technical assistance; and

  • emphasize to all Americans the value of conservation practices in enhancing quality of life, restoring air and watershed health, and contributing to safe and affordable food and fiber.

Incentives for Conservation

In its work, the task force identified a major shortcoming in existing conservation programs: They often penalize producers that already practice conservation by excluding them from rewards for the public benefits they provide. Based on that, the task force searched for ways to provide incentives for all producers who practice good stewardship. What emerged after spending many hours examining the current structure and operation of our nation’s conservation programs was the idea for a new incentives approach that would encourage even more producers to practice conservation.

The task force recommends a new Conservation Incentives Program (CIP), similar in many respects to Senator Harkin’s proposal, that would reward producers who apply and maintain conservation practices on their lands. The level of reward would depend upon the extent and complexity of the conservation systems installed and/or maintained by the producer.

Inclusive.  CIP would be open to all farmers and ranchers, including livestock producers, who implement a Core 4 Conservation system of land treatment practices. For example, a producer using a system of grazing land management, irrigation water management, and nutrient management using grass waterways, would be eligible for this proposed incentive program.

Locally Led. The task force envisions CIP as primarily locally driven, with conservation districts certifying that a producer has, in fact, implemented a comprehensive system of conservation practices. Conservation districts also would determine the level of payment a producer would receive. Even though determined locally, the level of benefits received should be within the context of general national guidelines. And, in order to ensure accountability, these payments would not be made until the local district has certified that the system of practices has been implemented.

Environmental and Economic Benefits. By reaching far more producers than current natural resource programs, the Conservation Incentives Program would not only provide widespread environmental benefits and quality of life improvements for all citizens, it also would provide additional financial security for the nation’s agricultural producers, including limited resource and minority producers. The proposed program echoes Core 4 Conservation’s commitment to linking profitability with environmental protection.

Successes of local incentive-based conservation programs suggest that a government-supported national conservation incentive program would realize substantial economic returns. For example, by investing a few hundred million dollars in conservation measures in upstream watersheds above New York City, the city saved an estimated $8 billion by eliminating the need for costly new drinking water filtration equipment and systems. In another example, the $100 million spent annually on the NRCS small watershed protection and flood prevention program saves about a billion dollars in prevented flood damages each year. This program includes only a small percentage of the nation’s total watersheds. Decreased need for dredging navigable waterways, reduced costs for road maintenance and stormwater management and other economic returns will be multiplied several fold with a new program that reaches all lands and all producers.

Better Coordination.  By relying on state and local governments to provide program leadership, CIP and Core 4 Conservation will result in better coordination of national conservation efforts. Core 4 Conservation is the vision all of agriculture – public and private interests  - can share. CIP potentially could replace many, if not all, of the current conservation programs. This more holistic approach would not only clarify the program requirements, but also streamline the enrollment process, reduce paperwork and more efficiently use government resources.

The need for conservation compliance efforts also could be significantly reduced, if not eliminated, because producers would likely go beyond minimum conservation objectives in order to receive greater rewards. With fewer regulatory components, producers would have strong incentives to practice good stewardship behavior. CIP would be far more cost-effective than today’s mixed bag of narrowly focused programs.

The task force recommends that if current conservation programs are reauthorized, they receive new levels of funding.  Each was considered to be beneficial and complementary of the recommended CIP program.  

Implementing this Vision

The best intended programs are doomed to fail without including a mechanism for implementation. 

Technical assistance.  NRCS’s Conservation Technical Assistance Program, delivered through local conservation districts to cooperators and other land users, is the nation’s foremost private lands conservation and water quality pollution prevention program. It provides landowners and operators with much needed help in planning and applying conservation treatments to control erosion and improve the quantity and quality of soil resources; improve and conserve water; enhance fish and wildlife habitat; conserve energy; improve woodland, pasture and range conditions; and protect and enhance wetlands. Many federal, state, and local agencies also rely upon the technical expertise unique to NRCS to carry out other conservation programs that complement the NRCS effort not only in the agricultural areas, but in rural, suburban and urban communities as well.

We believe that the federal government must provide a basic level of technical assistance funding to maintain its commitment to support locally led conservation initiatives that complement federal efforts to ensure a safe and productive environment. The federal technical presence that NRCS provides is vital to ensuring that sound technical standards are maintained in our nation’s conservation programs. It is also critical in the on-the-ground implementation of needed conservation practices.

Partnerships. Involvement of private sector partners is critical to the success of any conservation provision in the Farm Bill.  The private sector not only brings the necessary resources to promote conservation programs to their constituents, but it also provides cutting-edge research and products that make conservation affordable and achievable for America’s farmers.

Marketing.  Without a vision for how America’s agriculture will profit and thrive in the future, any conservation program will fail. Without a mechanism for delivering information to agribusiness, technical advisors and producers, few will participate. The Core 4 Conservation initiative provides both a vision and a marketing delivery system for agricultural conservation. Employing the successful strategy of the CRM initiative, CTIC today is providing Core 4 Conservation resources to information multipliers across the country. In 2000, six states formed Core 4 Conservation support organizations and are delivering the message on the local level. Conservation districts across the country are helping their constituents implement site-specific systems. Industry partners have incorporated Core 4 Conservation into their environmental stewardship campaigns. And, national ag media publications are publishing Core 4 Conservation success stories. The same public/private partnership network can be used for national promotion of the conservation programs of the new Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill is one of the most important vehicles in providing landowners and managers with guidance and assistance in protecting and enhancing the nation’s natural resources. The conservation title of the next Farm Bill presents a tremendous opportunity to expand the public/private partnerships that energize America’s conservation efforts. The vision and recommendations outlined above can become the platform for launching the nation’s private lands conservation efforts to a bold new level. It will not be an easy undertaking to put this program and delivery system in place. It will require involvement and commitment from the entire conservation and agricultural communities. By working together, however, we believe it can be accomplished.

CTIC and our Board of Directors believe that the recommendations for the next generation Farm Bill coupled with Core 4 Conservation is the answer – the new approach that will achieve better soils, cleaner water and greater profits for farm families and result in a brighter future for the generations that follow.   

Thank you.