Conservation is an important part of federal farm funding -- the laws that shape what, where, and how we grow our food. And yet, if the negotiations around the 2012 Farm Bill go as predicted, funding for conservation is in grave danger.
Why does conservation on farms matter? Well, for starters, most large-scale agriculture is a disruptive endeavor. It requires farmers to plow under native flora and replace it with giant monocultures of annual crops, and then coddle those crops by irrigating them and applying fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides -- all ecologically damaging technologies.
There are ways to farm better, to wash away less soil and use fewer dangerous chemicals. But farming with a lighter footprint often costs more than it brings in, and until around the last decade, federal policy has done little to inspire conservation. Instead, farm subsidies encourage farmers to plant crops fencerow to fencerow with little regard to environmental impacts.
In 2002, though, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began a program aimed a shifting the balance towards conservation. The shift continued after the 2008 Farm Bill, and the new program -- the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which pays farmers to implement measures that reduce erosion and chemical drift, minimize fertilizer runoff, and improve habitat for native pollinators -- has grown every year. It's now the most widespread conservation program in the country.