Punt Now, Pay Later: Why Congress Should Pass the Farm Bill Now

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 13:  A label stating 'Produce of USA' is wrapped around a bunch of organic carrots at a farmers mark
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 13: A label stating 'Produce of USA' is wrapped around a bunch of organic carrots at a farmers market on June 13, 2012 in San Francisco, California. The U.S. Senate has started to debate the new five-year, half trillion dollar farm and food bill that will rewrite the federal policy that outlines how American farmers are protected from financial and natural disasters. California, ranked first in the nation for specialty crops exports, is seeking continued support of specialty crops, pest management, marketing assistance and agricultural research and State lawmakers have addressed a letter to the House Committee on Agriculture asking for programs to continue. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

To some, farmers and conservationists may seem like unlikely allies. But last week, hundreds of representatives from farm and conservation organizations rallied together on Capitol Hill. They were there to send a unified message to Congress: re-authorization of the Farm Bill is critical to the health and well-being of our country's lands and waters, farm families and our national economy.

Renewed only once every five years, the current Farm Bill is set to expire on September 30. The Senate and House Agriculture Committees and the entire Senate passed versions of the Bill this summer with strong bipartisan support. The full House should act in this session of Congress to get the job done.

The Conservation Title of the Farm Bill is the most important piece of legislation in the country for the restoration and management of America's private lands. It supports things like the Grassland and Wetlands Reserve Programs, which pay farmers and ranchers to restore land unsuitable for agriculture to natural habitat. Farm Bill cost-share programs help farmers and ranchers to increase agricultural productivity while reducing environmental impacts and make farms more sustainable and resilient to seasonal variation like our current drought. And the Sodsaver Program included in both the House and Senate versions of the bill would help to prevent the conversion of fragile native grasslands to row crops.

These Farm Bill-funded programs are smart investments. They are good for nature, helping to protect and restore critical wetland, grassland and forest habitat for our nation's fish and wildlife. But they are good for people, too--helping farmers and ranchers keep their lands healthy and productive protects our food supply and our economy. Smarter farming practices reduce harmful agricultural runoff and improve our drinking water. Healthy wetlands can help reduce the impact of damaging floods. And healthier lands and waters also create more recreational opportunities for fishers, hunters, hikers and wildlife watchers.

Many Farm Bill programs were created in response to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which taught us what happens when we push nature too far. To meet the demands for wheat generated by World War I, tens of millions of acres of grassland were plowed under. Those grasses, with their deep roots, had held soil in place for eons. When drought struck in the 1930s, nothing was left to keep the soil from blowing away.

In response, new government agencies and programs were created to instill better farming practices. Those efforts and programs worked, and they evolved into the Farm Bill conservation programs we use today. This summer's record temperatures and drought should be clarion call for continuing to move ahead with the Farm Bill and its support for conservation.

The versions of the Farm Bill passed by the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee are not perfect, and my organization, The Nature Conservancy, is advocating a few changes in a final bill that put further emphasis on conservation practices. But, as has been the case in past Farm Bills, the issues separating the interests are clearly resolvable. In fact members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have been effective at working together across party lines to bring the bill to this point in the process, and they should be able to resolve the remaining issues like the level of food stamp funding and how an economic safety net for farmers can work most cost-effectively.

As rising temperatures and soaring demands for food and energy put more pressure on our planet's resources, we can invest wisely in food and environmental security by helping America's farmers, ranchers and foresters act as good stewards of our lands and waters. This session of Congress is the time to pass a Farm Bill that will help ensure our farms and forests continue to produce plentiful harvests, protect soil and water resources needed for food security in the years to come, and enable reliable incomes and jobs not just for farm families, but also for the millions of other workers employed by America's huge agriculture sector, which is among the best performing in our national economy.