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Conservation and the Farm Bill

I came away from the recent Governor's Conference on Agriculture inspired, energized and proud. The theme of the conference was, "One Missouri, One Agriculture: A New Direction."

As administrator of the Conservation Department's Private Land Services division, I feel the need to understand the issues facing production agriculture in order to better serve the conservation needs of the American farmer/producer, a valued and important partner. Those of us who work in state and federal government are constantly seeking cooperative ways to assist Missouri producers in meeting their land use objectives while maintaining healthy and sustainable natural resources. That attitude is what prompts me to write about the Farm Bill that is moving through Congress.

Why is the Conservation Department so interested in the Farm Bill? The Farm Bill has had and will have a major impact on the conservation of Missouri's natural resources, including fish, forests and wildlife. That's why we are working to ensure that the conservation provisions and language in the bill are appropriate and serve both landowner and conservation interests. This is especially important because after the Farm Bill is approved, the Conservation Department will be responsible for providing technical support to our USDA partners in implementing programs that involve fish, forests and wildlife.

Bill McGuire, the Conservation Department's private land programs supervisor and our in-house Farm Bill specialist, provides the following insights regarding the importance of the Farm Bill to conservation.

McGuire notes that agricultural production, a vital national interest, completely depends on the quality of land, water, air and other sustainable natural resources. Cropland and livestock farming contribute $4.5 billion each year to the Missouri economy while forest products add another $3 billion per year. In addition, agriculture and agribusiness are important means of employment for thousands.

At the same time, Missouri is blessed with a diversity of rivers, streams, lakes, forests, prairies, wetlands and other natural resources that enhance our quality of life and maintain a healthy environment. Not only do these contribute to our quality of life, this rich natural heritage also benefits the Missouri economy. Fish and wildlife recreation contributes $2.1 billion annually. State tourism, which is riding the promotional slogan of "Where the Rivers Run," adds a whopping $12.2 billion. Thousands of Missourians work in these industries and depend on the conservation of land, water, air and other natural resources for their livelihoods.

Missouri's agricultural, fish, forest, wildlife and tourism economies depend on abundant, healthy and sustainable natural resources. Because so much of Missouri (65 percent) is contained within the 109,000 farms that help produce food and fiber, it is in the best interest of all Missourians to ensure conservation and production agriculture remain mutually beneficial.

The Farm Bill is the premier federal mechanism for ensuring that adequate food resources are maintained in concert with sustainable natural resources. Since the creation of the 1996 Farm Bill, USDA conservation programs, which are strictly voluntary, have greatly benefited Missouri. The numbers are staggering:

  • $2 billion through 25,000 landowner contracts to conserve soil, water and wildlife on 1.4 million acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
  • $75.6 million through the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) to restore more than 78,000 acres of wetlands involving 549 sites.
  • $1.3 million through the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) to provide critical habitat for imperiled species on 298 ownerships.
  • $15.6 million through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to improve soil, water and wildlife benefits on crop, grazing and hay land.

The Farm Bill and conservation are tightly interrelated. A healthy and sustainable Missouri economy depends on healthy and sustainable natural resources, and vice versa. You can't have one without the other.

Working with producers and other related agencies in delivering the conservation provisions of the Farm Bill will remain an important priority for the Conservation Department. Our attention to the Farm Bill is consistent with the Department's mission and with the most important message I took home from the Governor's Conference on Agriculture: Government can work better by working better together.

George Seek, Private Land Services Division Administrator

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