Conservation incentives will likely continue. So says Dana York, associate chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) regarding the conservation aspects of the next Farm Bill. The extent of the incentives hinge upon funding from both public and private sources, she adds.

“No question, there are a lot more carrots available to farmers now than in the past,” says York. “The sticks are still there, but they are mainly from state and federal regulations.”

First authorized under the 2002 Farm Bill, the Conservation Security Program (CSP) is a good example of how government programs of the future might use financial rewards to both recognize the nation's best agricultural land managers and motivate others to do more, says York. “The CSP is a three-tier, incentive-based program that rewards the highest standards of conservation and environmental management on farms and ranches,” she explains. “Payments for the third tier are up to $45,000 per year for up to 10 years.”

Under tier 1 of a CSP contract, farmers and ranchers treat only part of their operation for soil and water concerns. Under tier 2, they treat all soil and water concerns. “Tier 3 is like a master farmer award,” says York. “It treats the entire operation for soil, water, plant and animal concerns, which can be different for each watershed.”

CSP started in 2004 as a pilot project in 18 environmentally sensitive watersheds. Last year, it encompassed these required 18 watersheds plus an additional 202, and in 2006 it expanded by 60 more to a total of 280 watersheds.

Additional funding is needed to expand the CSP into more regions and to start new incentive-based conservation programs, says York.

“There aren't enough federal dollars for conservation programs — that's why there is a need to bring in outside cooperators and investors,” York explains. “For every farmer who is approved for a conservation program, there are three to four others who qualify but don't receive funding.”

It helps that both the NRCS and the nation's farmers have a good track record to present to Congress.

Conservation practices have been shown to be the most productive and cost-effective way to produce food, adds York. Conservation tillage practices, for example, use considerably less fuel and protect the soil from erosion better than conventional tillage systems, she says. New precision farming technology, with global positioning systems and yield maps, also help farmers reduce input costs and protect the environment by avoiding excess applications of crop protection products, she says.

Conservation practices can be both good for the environment and for the pocketbook, agrees Gene Schmidt, a northwest Indiana corn and soybean farmer. “My biggest conservation problem is water quality,” says Schmidt, whose farm is about 18 miles south of Lake Michigan. “I have a shallow aquifer. So, we do grid soil sampling and programmed irrigation to save costs and protect ground and surface waters. We also use variable-rate application, when needed.”

Schmidt represents the Midwest region on the executive board of the National Association of Conservation Districts. He recently returned from Washington, D.C., where he testified before a Senate committee about the continued need for outside technical service providers (TSPs) to help NRCS implement new and expanded conservation programs. Farmers can currently use TSPs as a complement or a supplement to NRCS field staff.

“The benefits of technical service providers, authorized by the 2002 Farm Bill, are that they are qualified to do contract work in conservation,” says Schmidt. “Without them, we don't have enough technical people to help write and implement conservation plans.”

In the future, Schmidt says he sees tremendous opportunities for conservation, particularly for those operators who keep good records of their farming practices. For instance, carbon sequestration programs might soon benefit farmers who can demonstrate that their operations are helping to minimize the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The EPA calls CO2 “the most important global warming gas emitted by human activities.” Under a carbon sequestration program, farmers who adopt a conservation tillage practice, for example, might be rewarded for keeping more CO2 locked into the soil — where it won't harm the environment — than farmers who use conventional tillage systems.

“The Chicago Board of Trade is now trading carbon credits, and Illinois conservation districts will help to administer carbon sequestration there,” says Schmidt.

More promising new programs include the potential to use switch-grass from the conservation reserve program (CRP) as a renewable fuel, and the implementation of a national wetland mitigation program, says Schmidt. “A lot of municipalities with storm water runoff problems would like to have access to a wetland as part of a mitigation program,” he says. “Using farmland suitable for temporary storm water storage would be another possible component of a wetland mitigation program.” However, Schmidt adds that liability and water quality issues would need to be assessed and resolved before such a program took effect.

Many non-profit groups and private investors have expressed interest in participating with farmers in wetland mitigation banking, water quality credit trading and carbon sequestration programs under the 2007 Farm Bill, says York. “Future green payments for environmental services may help to further offset regulatory requirements, and private dollars will stretch federal monies.”

Various government agencies might also work together more closely, says York. “For instance, soon there may be cost-share or easements to help meet the objectives of endangered species regulations.”

Whether or not the 2007 Farm Bill comes through with expanded incentive programs, farmers can rest assured that the NRCS will continue to focus on three overarching strategies: cooperative conservation, a watershed approach and a market-based approach, says York. She explains that the best conservation solutions result when farmers and government work together; that agriculture has to be economical to provide more opportunities for conservation; and that without a watershed approach, “we are left with random acts of conservation.”

In some instances, 70% of the sedimentation in a watershed may be coming from 20% of the land, adds York. “If we don't have that 20% of the land in a conservation program, then the watershed won't improve.”