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Conservation: Much Has Been Gained, Much To Be Done—American Farmland Trust on USDA’s CEAP Report on Upper Mississippi River Basin

Jennifer Morrill: 301-792-6238 (cell), jmorrill@farmland.org
Washington, D.C., June 17, 2010“This new report on the effects of on-farm conservation practices on the environmental health of the Upper Mississippi River Basin shows that we are seeing the benefits of investing in conservation, but there is much work yet to be done,” says Jon Scholl, President of American Farmland Trust (AFT). “USDA is to be commended for producing this comprehensive assessment of the status of the natural resources in this region,  quantifying the results of conservation programs, and  providing information that can help improve conservation programs going forward.”

“As the single largest user of land and water resources in the United States, American farmers have a significant role in maintaining and improving the environmental health of our natural resources,” Scholl adds. “It’s clear that farmers are embracing their role as stewards of the land, water and air, and we’re seeing that the modern day investment in conservation programs that began with the 1985 Farm Bill is paying off.”

Scholl sees another pattern emerging in the report. “We know, for instance, that in recent years many farmers have been turned away from federal conservation programs because there’s not enough cost-share money to meet the demand. We need to ask, ‘How much further along would we be if all the farmers who wanted to participate in conservation programs could?’, ‘What if the marketplace paid farmers to produce food, fiber and bioenergy, AND the environmental benefits they produce?’ and “How can we best design conservation programs for maximum benefits and efficiency?’”

Through its Agriculture & Environment initiative, AFT works to expand conservation and environmentally responsible farming practices, engage agriculture in developing and participating in ecosystem markets, develop policies and programs to advance conservation; all with the goal of helping farmers improve the environment while expanding their sources of income and keeping them on their farm and ranchland.  “The conservation gains we’ve made so far are clearly significant,” says Scholl. “In the last few weeks, events in the Gulf of Mexico have shown how fragile our environment is, and just how dependent we are on clean water, and healthy land and air. We must continue to make sure that conservation programs meet the needs of farmers and the public, and, are fully funded. Ultimately we have too much at stake in this country to lose our precious farmland, our farmers who manage it, and the opportunities to enlist the agriculture community in addressing the most pressing environmental challenges of our times.”

AFT employs three key tools, Ecosystem Services Markets, the BMP Challenge and Integrated Pest Management, to promote conservation practices that provide cleaner water, cleaner air and healthy natural habitats.  These tools also address barriers to the adoption of on-farm conservation practices by lowering risk and involving markets to pay the farmer for environmental services.

AFT found the following findings in the report to be significant:

  • On average, conservation practices have reduced sediment loss from fields by 69 %; reduced nitrogen lost from surface runoff by 46% and reduced total phosphorus loss from fields by 49%, and decreased the percentage of acres that are losing soil organic carbon from 41% to 25%. However, subsurface flow of nitrogen has only been reduced by 5%.  This leaching of nitrogen could be controlled by pairing erosion control practices with nutrient management practices for rate, form, timing, and method of application.
  • As a result of conservation practices, there are effects on the water quality in the region: in-stream loads have been reduced by: 37% of sediment, 21% of nitrogen, 40% of phosphorus,
    and 51% of atrazine.
  • Conservation practices have the most effect on the most vulnerable acres, and targeting conservation practices appear to be the most effective strategy for reducing sediment, nutrient and pesticide loads to water bodies in the region.
  • The report suggests that adequate treatment for resource concerns is rarely achieved with one conservation practice solution. Full treatment for environmental issues requires a suite of conservation practices to: avoid or limit losses by consistently using nutrient management practices on all crops in the farmers’ rotation, controlling overland and concentrated flow, and trapping materials leaving fields through edge of field mitigation.
  • The study found that 36 million acres (62% of cropped acres) are under-treated for one or more of the following: sediment loss; and nitrogen or phosphorus loss with surface runoff or
    subsurface flow.
  • The application of conservation practices follows the history of federal conservation programs and technical assistance.  Practices for controlling water erosion are used on 45% of the cropped acres, including 72% of highly erodible land; and, 71% of the acres meet the tillage intensity criteria for no-till or mulch-till, and are gaining organic soil carbon.
  • While most acres have evidence of nitrogen and phosphorus management, the majority of acres lack consistent use of nutrient management techniques.

As part of the Conservation Effects Assessment Project, USDA used on-farm sampling, data from the National Resources Inventory, and modeling to determine the baseline conservation condition of the 58 million acres of cropped acres and the nearly three million acres of acres in long-term conserving cover. Through this methodology on-farm conservation practices were evaluated for their ability to reduce losses of sediments, nutrients and pesticides from fields, enhance soil quality through increases in organic carbon in fields, and reduce in-stream loads of sediment, nutrients and pesticides in the region’s rivers and streams.  The resulting report: “Assessment of Effects of Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland in the Upper Mississippi River Basin” is available at www.usda.gov.



American Farmland Trust is the nation's leading conservation organization dedicated to protecting farmland, promoting sound farming practices and keeping farmers on the land. Since its founding in 1980 by a group of farmers and citizens concerned about the rapid loss of farmland to development, AFT has helped save millions of acres of farmland from development and led the way for the adoption of conservation practices on millions more.

AFT's national office is located in Washington, DC. Phone: 202-331-7300. For more information, visit www.farmland.org.

American Farmland Trust