Understanding the Farm Bill: Good Soil and the Programs that Protect It

During the summer after my junior year of college, I worked on a farm near Postville, Iowa. That summer I spent many sweaty, happy hours harvesting pounds of peas, potatoes, spinach, cabbage, and nearly every other vegetable you can think of, but the farmer always said we were less in the business of growing vegetables than of growing soil. This statement might sound strange at first – it’s easy to think of farmers as producing crops and livestock to eat, use, and sell – but farmers are also charged with the equally important role of being stewards of the land. After all, good soil is essential for plant productivity, which forms the basis of our health and economic wellbeing.

Unfortunately, many of the agricultural practices that have provided (most of) us with abundant cheap food (especially if you like corn and soybeans) have also been detrimental to environmental quality. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides used on row crops and concentrated animal waste from feedlots can contaminate groundwater and rivers. Tillage and leaving fields bare in the off-season speeds up erosion, so topsoil and fertility are lost, while heavy machinery can compact the soil, making it harder for roots to grow. Large tracts of corn and soybeans leave little room for anything else to grow, and this lack of biodiversity means less animal habitat and an ecosystem that is less stable and resilient.

The first governmental attempt to address these issues was the creation of the Soil Conservation Service in 1935, and in the following decades, several programs were introduced to take agricultural lands out of production (it’s important to note that, like most Farm Bill initiatives, such measures were intended to be dual-purpose, both to conserve farmland and curtail crop surpluses). However, it was not until 1985 that an entire section of the Farm Bill was devoted to conservation measures. Subsequent Farm Bills have added conservation programs and increased funding. $24 billion was projected to be spent on conservation programs over five years in the 2008 Farm Bill, making up 9% of the total spending.

Current Farm Bill conservation programs are largely voluntary and provide financial incentives for farmers to shift their practices toward more eco-friendly approaches. They can be grouped into three categories: land retirement, working lands, and agricultural land preservation. Land retirement programs pay farmers to take sensitive land out of crop production and restore it to wetland, forest, or grassland. Working lands programs provide financial incentives and assistance to implement farming practices that help preserve the environment while the land is in production. Agricultural land preservation programs, such as the Grasslands Reserve Program and Farmland Protection Program, provide funds to help keep productive land in agricultural uses.

Historically, emphasis has been placed on land retirement programs. The largest conservation program in terms of annual funding is the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. Farmers agree not to farm on eligible land for 10-15 years and in return receive annual rental payments based on the value of the land and 50% of the cost necessary to plant native vegetation on the land. In order to be eligible for CRP, land must be considered highly erodible and have been planted to a commodity crop for four of the previous six years, unless it is located in an established conservation priority area (such as the Prairie Pothole National Priority Area covering parts of Minnesota and surrounding states). Because the number of acres that can be placed in CRP nationally is capped at 32 million, not all farmers who apply are accepted. Bids are evaluated based on an Environmental Benefits Index that predicts on- and off-farm benefits to the environment and wildlife due to reduced soil erosion, runoff, nutrient leaching, and improved habitat. The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) operates similarly, offering permanent and 30-year contracts to farmers with areas of wetland on their acreage, though its enrollment cap is just over 3 million acres. For some perspective, there are about 22 million acres of farmland in Minnesota, and just over 1.9 million of them are enrolled in CRP or WRP.

In the 2008 Farm Bill, increased emphasis was placed on working lands programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP). Farmers who would like to participate in these programs must apply, and applications are again evaluated based upon environmental benefit and cost; EQIP applications exceed the available budget by three to one. The long and varied list of eligible practices includes measures to improve wildlife habitat, reduce soil erosion and nutrient contamination, and even to encourage the use of local products. For example, using GPS-targeted pesticide application technology reduces the amount of chemicals used and the potential for drift, while waiting to plant crops on seasonal wetlands until after migratory birds have passed through provides habitat. Allowing a secondary crop to remain in the field during the winter (a practice called cover-cropping) and decreasing soil tillage reduce water and wind erosion by minimizing the time that soil is left bare. Money is also awarded to farmers who purchase farm inputs from sources within 100 miles of the farm and sell their products within 400 miles of the farm. Interestingly, the 2008 Farm Bill required the delineation of how CSP practices can be used by farmers who are transitioning to organic production.

In today’s green-minded climate, conservation programs continue to be politically popular.

However, there is concern that the multiple programs are too complex. An individual farmer can participate in many different programs, and limiting total conservation program payments to individual farmers may be considered. Of course, it’s important to ensure that the practices encouraged by Farm Bill conservation programs do indeed result in better environmental quality. Evaluation of the cost and effectiveness of conservation programs, as well as using outcome-based incentives, have been discussed in recent Farm Bill debates and are likely to be revisited in 2012.


  • Conservation Policy Briefing (
  • NRCS Conservation Programs (
  • Conservation Provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill written by Tadlock Cowan and Renée Johnson for the Congressional Research Service in 2008.
  • A Fair Farm Bill for Conservation, written by Dennis Keeney, Mark Muller, and Heather Schoonover for IATP in 2007
  • Soils & Land Use lecture by Lee Burras at Dordt College, July 25, 2010

If you haven't yet "Liked" our Facebook page, Understanding the Farm Bill: A Citizen's Guide to a Better Food System (jointly created with folks from IATP), please visit us there, let us know what you think, "Like" us, and tell your friends.


Ann Butkowski is happy to be back in her native Minnesota after spending the last two years in Boston. She’s learning to bike the streets of Minneapolis and grow tomatoes in her backyard. Ann has a master’s degree in nutrition science, but doesn’t let that stop her from eating ice cream right out of the carton.