Farmers have tough jobs. They fight a global market of food prices, spend a lot of money to plant crops, apply fertilizers, prevent soil erosion and protect clean water, then hope the weather helps them with a good harvest.
In order to better understand the difficulties and complexities of farming, I talked recently with a longtime Kentucky farmer about his past, his farming practices, the farm bill and conservation programs. To allow him to remain anonymous, I'll call him Joe.
Joe has been in farming most of his life and currently grows corn, soybeans and wheat. Joe spoke of increased efforts to reduce soil erosion and agricultural runoff into streams. "I've used grass filter strips and no-till practices for years, and have started using cover crops more recently."
As he put it, "Farmers are aware of the impacts that farming practices can have, and we all care about having clean streams. We really do care. The generation now is much more aware, through discussions with fellow farmers, conferences, and the internet, of better practices for conserving soil and protecting water quality."
We talked about the farm bill, important federal legislation that includes crop insurance protection for farmers, conservation programs and even food stamps. Congress recently allowed the 2008 farm bill to expire.
Joe spoke adamantly about the bill, saying, "We must have the safety net of crop insurance. We must have protection, with my upfront cost to put crops out close to a million dollars."
Joe's words illustrate the importance of the financial protection that the farm bill provides in case of drought or other disasters. Kentuckians should all be willing to support farmers for their risk.
Regular farming practices and land conservation techniques are also influenced by the legislation. In return for federal subsidies like crop insurance, conservation compliance requires farmers to utilize conservation plans to prevent soil erosion, protect clean water and protect wetlands. However, this provision may be dropped from the next farm bill.
As Joe put it, "It's common sense. With proper management, land can be farmed with no soil losses and little water quality impacts. But you need good management."
Sometimes, good laws are needed to keep good management methods in place, and conservation compliance is one way to do this. Conservation programs offer financial incentives for farmers to implement plant buffers along streams or to return farmed wetlands back to a natural state. Joe has participated in some of those programs, and thinks they are valuable, but says that certain guidelines need improvement to prevent a one-size-fits-all approach.
The conversation with Joe stressed that farmers clearly need a new farm bill — and soon.
As Congress considers a new farm bill, in the midst of the federal budget issues, all citizens of the commonwealth should support our farmers for their risks, which also help protect the health of our waterways across the state. It should not be jobs or clean water — it can be both, because we all need both.
Tim Joice is the water policy director with Kentucky Waterways Alliance in Louisville.