Climate change is real. So is the need for our country to pursue sound conservation measures, building on current achievements. The Biden administration rightly emphasized those goals in a Jan. 27 executive order. But it needlessly created uncertainty and concern for agricultural producers by asserting an ambitious goal — putting 30% of the nation’s land and water in conservation status by 2030 — without providing any practical guidance on how it would be accomplished.
The resulting information vacuum on this “30x30” proposal has enabled critics to claim that a supposed federal land grab lies ahead. The administration’s silence on the issue has placed Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a difficult position as he tries to explain a policy that at this point is little more than an abstraction.
Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who also served as agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, did provide needed reassurance when he publicly stated that the federal government will not seize private land. He also noted that U.S. ag producers are already using conservation measures in many cases.
Converting 30% of the nation’s land into conservation status would have particular impact on agricultural states such as Nebraska and Iowa. Mark McHargue, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, raised important points in a letter to Biden on the 30x30 issue.
More than 97% of the land in Nebraska is privately owned, McHargue noted. “Thus far,” he wrote, “the lack of details released on this particular proposal have led to far more questions than answers. ... Organizations have held public meetings in our state outlining possible worst-case scenarios under the (executive order) where it is used to expand the federal government’s control over private property.”
McHargue underlined a key point when he wrote that “real conservation efforts only work when those who will be impacted by these types of proposals are allowed a seat at the table.”
Indeed, the administration has a major obligation to create a process by which farmers and ranchers can provide input and feedback on the 30x30 concept. As Vilsack indicates, achieving producer buy-in on this issue is crucial.
Setting ambitious conservation goals is fine. But the administration must follow up by building constructive partnerships to make those goals achievable.
One successful instrument for promoting agricultural conservation is the federal Conservation Reserve Program, by which participating farmers receive a yearly rental payment for removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production. CRP contracts are 10 to 15 years in length. Tom Osborne was a stalwart proponent of CRP when he served in the U.S. House.
Each year, The World-Herald salutes sound agricultural stewardship with its Master Conservationist awards. Techniques include no-till farming and use of cover crops to reduce reliance on irrigation and fertilizer, which can lessen the nitrate levels in groundwater. In 2019, the Nebraska Legislature underscored the importance of such approaches by approving legislation to create a state soil health task force, aiming to strengthen outreach to ag producers. The bill’s sponsor was State Sen. Tim Gragert, a former field agent with the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Conservation and modern agriculture can go hand in hand. But the Biden administration must first extend a welcoming hand to producers, enabling an all-important partnership for success.