By Mike Moen, Public News Service - Iowa
The proposed Build Back Better bill is getting attention for a host of funding possibilities, including one area flying under the radar: sustainable agriculture.
Programs to reimburse farmers for adopting environmentally friendly practices could see benefits. The Biden administration's proposed public spending package includes $13 billion for the Working Lands Program, which provide financial and technical assistance to help farmers reach their conservation goals.
Kalee Olson, policy associate at the Center for Rural Affairs, describes the programs as underfunded and oversubscribed. She pointed out it creates tough choices for producers waiting for reimbursement approval.
"For some farmers, it can be a gamble on whether they want to go ahead and, say, plant cover crops, and hope they'll be accepted into the program and be partially reimbursed," Olson explained.
Supporters of the programs say more waiting periods or lack of funds might scare off future applicants who don't want to take on the risk. Despite some gains over the past decade, only a small percentage of Iowa farmland is planted with cover crops.
The Biden plan has won House approval, but faces obstacles in the Senate, with some members saying it is too broad in scope and too expensive.
Mike Ruby, a farmer in Greene in the northern part of the state, has been planting cover crops for about 15 years. He said he has never had issues in applying for cost-sharing aid through the Conservation Stewardship Program, but feels a funding boost could attract other farmers who are not ready to take the leap.
"I think it would be definitely beneficial for the ones that haven't been trying to entice them to giving it a try," Ruby contended.
According to the annual Iowa Farmland Ownership and Tenure Survey, farmers who are reluctant to plant cover crops cite reasons such as costs, as well as not having enough time. But longstanding program enrollees say these practices can help improve soil health, which eventually improves a farmer's bottom line over time.
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