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A better farm future starts with the soil; Opinion on the next Farm Bill

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Within the next year Congress will reauthorize the massive amalgamation of legislation we commonly refer to as “the farm bill.” The farm bill, which is reauthorized every five years, has major implications for every part of our food and farm system and covers issues including but certainly not limited to: conservation, nutrition, local food, credit and finance, research and commodity subsidies.

Although healthy soil is one of the essential building blocks of agriculture, historically the issue has not been a major focus of the farm bill – as some farmers would say, soil has been treated like dirt. With extreme weather events on the rise and farmers and foresters feeling the effects of a changing climate, however, soil health is now at the forefront of our national conversation.

….As our most significant package of food and farm legislation approaches expiration on September 30, 2018, many are asking: How can the farm bill support resilient farms, address natural resource concerns and increase productivity? A key part of the answer: promote soil health.….The next farm bill should enhance the long-term funding base for both working lands programs and ensure an ongoing and growing focus on improving soil health. In addition, the farm bill should make sure that USDA has the authority and funding it needs to measure and report on program outcomes….

….The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program is one of the only USDA research programs with a clear and consistent focus on farmer-driven research. SARE is the leader in cutting-edge on-farm research to develop and test soil enhancement methods, such as regionally specific cover cropping or grazing management systems. The next farm bill should reauthorize and secure direct farm bill funding for SARE to ensure the program’s continued success.

….The farm bill must also underscore the connection between healthy soils and reduced risks for farmers, and ensure that federal crop insurance programs reward producers for advanced conservation activities and provide the appropriate incentives for those who are not currently engaged.

Collectively, reforms to conservation, research and the farm safety net present an enormous opportunity to improve the health of our soils. …

Alyssa Charney is a policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and staffs the Coalition’s Conservation, Energy, and Environment Committee.

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