The white-heat effort of the Conservation Compliance Program to save the nation's soil has gone backward — or at best stalled. Pretty harsh words, right? You bet. But some very qualified people agree.

Few, if any, will argue that the all-out 10-year Conservation Compliance Program, born in the 1985 Farm Bill, was the most successful soil erosion control program since the 1930s.

In fact, the majority of farmers responded magnificently, soil conservationists say.

But that compliance mindset has changed drastically, claim critics, starting with the 1996 Freedom to Farm legislation that weakened the conservation compliance provisions of the '85 bill.

“Since that time, we've gone asleep at the switch,” says Gyles Randall, University of Minnesota soil scientist. “The LDPs (loan deficiency payments) in today's farm program are for bushels produced come hell or high water. And we have, for the most part, forgotten about soil stewardship. I just can't sit here any longer and watch what's going on. We're just not going in the right direction.”

Paul Johnson, an Iowa farmer and former chief of the U. S. Soil Conservation Service (SCS) — now the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) — pretty much agrees. He's not certain, however, that we have actually gone backwards in conservation tillage acreage. But he thinks there are still plenty of farmers not in compliance and that we need “another major effort” to finish the job overall.

“It's time for a wake-up call,” Johnson says. “We need to give better carrots for the many farmers who are doing it right. Fall tillage of soybean stubble on erosive land, for example, is despicable.

“Our last Farm Bill kind of told farmers to ‘go to it, do whatever you want again,’” Johnson adds. “So not much has been working for soil conservation in the last five or so years.”

Johnson insists we need to take a large chunk of the more than $20 billion currently spent on agriculture and “buy good soil and water conservation” to benefit not only farmers, but the non-farming taxpayers of the country. He believes that could be done by rewarding farmers who have effective grass waterways, buffer strips or terraces, or those who use effective conservation tillage practices.

Bill Richards, a no-till pioneer from Circleville, OH, and Johnson's predecessor as SCS chief in Washington, agrees that the passion of the Conservation Compliance Program has diminished substantially.

“All you have to do is get in an automobile and drive across the Corn Belt and the compliance situation is terrible,” says Richards. “We have been seeing a conservation backslide — big time.

“Many, and not just big farmers, have seemingly backed off. And the signal that has been coming out of Washington is that we're no longer going to do anything if you're not in compliance. Now I'm not for the NRCS being policemen, but I am for sending a strong signal to the country to do whatever it takes to prevent soil erosion.”

Randall, Johnson and Richards all agree that the NRCS shouldn't have to shoulder all of the blame for the compliance effort running out of steam. They also blame the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which actually pays farm program benefits, for often not withholding those benefits from the violator of compliance rules uncovered by an NRCS technician. Of course, FSA representatives don't want to be regarded as policemen, either.

“In this case, the NRCS conservation technician gets hung out to dry,” Johnson retorts. “He's viewed as the bad guy, while the FSA official is viewed as the good guy. So ultimately the conservation technician is saying, ‘Why should I do this? They aren't following up, and I'm getting a bad name in the community.’”

Pearlie Reed, an SCS veteran and current NRCS chief, is in the hot seat that Johnson and Richards once sat in. And he doesn't deny that there are some violations of compliance rules — which technically are still in force — out in the country.

He won't lay blame on his own agency or the FSA for the problems, he says, because he has no statistical proof that they are to blame for the current conservation letdown.

But he thinks more funding is needed to buy more good conservation practices. “It makes you sick to your stomach to see the bad examples out there,” Reed says.

“You need to take a look at what has happened to public policy for the last eight or nine years,” the NRCS chief insists. “All USDA field-based agencies have been cut back and severely reduced in scope.

“When you look at the downsizing that has occurred over the last eight or 10 years, it's amazing we're still in business and able to do what we're still doing,” Reed says.

There's a matter of focus involved, too, says Lynn Betts, NRCS information officer in Des Moines, IA. “I think one thing that's happened is that much of the time and energies of the field staff, already strained with a heavy workload, have gone back into carrying out the Wetlands Reserve Program, Buffer Initiative Program and other new efforts,” Betts says.

Randall agrees that a switch in focus is a big part of the problem. Manure management, phosphorus indexes and other water quality programs have gobbled up the time of NRCS professionals, he contends. And even though those are important programs, they could be shifted to the extension service or elsewhere.

There may be a bright light at the end of the tunnel, however. Some of the proposals being chewed over in Congress offer hope — most notably the conservation stewardship bill proposed by Senate Ag Committee chairman, Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR), and new conservation provisions by Richard Lugar (R-IN), the former chairman of that committee.

So what should farmers who have been good soil stewards before and during conservation compliance do to ensure better soil conservation overall?

Do what Gyles Randall did: write letters to all of your U.S. congressional delegates, — senators and representatives — and express your thoughts, say these experts. Visit www.YourCongress.com for e-mail and postal addresses or telephone numbers for all congressmen.

You need to act fast, however, because the debate on the new 10-year farm bill is well under way. In the final analysis, don't forget that it's your responsibility to actually put conservation practices on the land, Johnson challenges.