Organic farmers: Old-fashioned tilling keeps them out of conservation program. Federal government: CSP favors spraying to prevent erosion and greenhouse gases.

By PHILIP BRASHER
Des Moines Register Washington Bureau (link no longer available)

Washington, D.C. – Organic farmers control weeds the old-fashioned way, turning the soil. Most conventional growers, of course, spray herbicides.

Which is better for the environment? A lot of consumers assume it’s the organic way. The government would say otherwise.

Organic farmers across the country are having trouble qualifying for the Agriculture Department’s new Conservation Security Program, which provides annual payments to farmers as a reward for improved environmental practices.

The problem is the method, called a soil conditioning index, that USDA uses to gauge the health of farmland. The index estimates the organic matter, or carbon, that the soil contains, based on a farmer’s practices. The organic matter is important not only to prevent erosion but also to control greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

The index rewards farmers who don’t plow their fields, which is hard for farmers to do unless they use herbicides to control the weeds.

Tilling the soil releases carbon into the atmosphere and can contribute to erosion. Some organic vegetable farms in California are producing up to three crops a year in the same fields, so hot is the demand for organic food, USDA officials say.

The next chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., wants to change the program’s rules to make it easier for more organic farmers to qualify.

USDA would likely be required to take into account some of the soil-saving practices used by many organic growers, such as putting fields in cover crops like alfalfa every few years.

“The fastest-growing sector of the food industry is organics, 20 percent per year,” said Harkin. “The supply is not meeting demand.”

Ron Rosman, an organic farmer near Harlan in western Iowa, hasn’t had a chance to sign up for the conservation program yet. However, he says his soil is so good that one field produced 195 bushels of corn per acre this year. Many conventional growers would be happy with a crop like that: The average corn yield in Iowa this year was 163 bushels an acre.

He improves the soil quality by following a crop rotation that includes leaving a field in alfalfa for two years before planting it to corn. “Our soil loss is the same or even better” than a conventional no-till operation, he said.

USDA’s soil index “is really highly calibrated to tillage and not to other things that affect soil quality,” said Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Harkin, who wrote the conservation program into the 2002 farm bill, also wants to change the rules so that farmers could qualify for payments when they grow crops, such as perennial grasses, that could someday be used for making fuel ethanol.

Harkin’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is looking at setting up an entirely new program to pay farmers to grow biofuel crops, to jumpstart what many see as the future of the ethanol industry.

Bringing organic growers and energy crops into the Conservation Security Program, as Harkin is proposing, could have a significant political benefit: With more farmers participating in the program, there would be more pressure on Congress to fund it.

CSP is designed as a nationwide program that could eventually supplant some traditional crop subsidies. The average annual payment is $11,187 per farm.

“It is a concept that is broadly embraced by environmentalists, by farmers, everybody, to reward farmers not just for what they grow but how they grow it,” said Harkin.

But Congress has repeatedly raided the program’s budget allocation to pay for disaster aid and other needs. So to date fewer than 20,000 of the nation’s 2 million farms are enrolled, and growers in most areas of the country have yet to be offered a chance to apply.

Harkin believes that adding more farms to the program would broaden public support for increasing the funding. Increasing the funding, in turn, would enable more farms to enroll.

“If CSP remains available only in a limited number of watersheds, that’s not going to do the trick,” said Hoefner.

      Reporter Philip Brasher can be reached at (202) 906-8138 or

pbrasherdmreg.com

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