A no-till field at Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Hughes County. (Colette Kessler, USDA NRCS South Dakota)
While people from around the country think of South Dakota as the home of Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park and the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, we are at our core a state powered and defined by our farms and ranches. Agriculture is the South Dakota’s top producing industry, generating almost $12 billion for the economy each year and supporting 1 in 5 jobs across the state.
Unfortunately, the climate conditions that agriculture requires to thrive are becoming less predictable and more extreme. From the Missouri River to the Black Hills and the grasslands in between, South Dakota will experience wetter springs and hotter and drier summers, in addition to heavier blizzards, followed by rapid snowmelt.
It’s a daunting reality that will require collaboration between private landowners and the public sector to ensure that our farmlands not only survive but remain successful for generations to come.
As anybody who is familiar with farmers knows, they are not ones to lie down and give up — adapting is in their blood. Many are already buying into what is broadly categorized as “sustainable agriculture,” which refers to a variety of conservation practices that preserve the environment for future use. This includes tactics like cover cropping, crop rotation and no-till faming.
Conservation is a win-win-win for agriculture producers, the land, and the climate. Unfortunately, despite positive intentions, many landowners lack the financial support and technical expertise to adopt such practices. Given that over 93 percent of South Dakota’s land is privately owned, even commonsense policies can be difficult to implement.
Thankfully, there is already policy infrastructure in place to tackle this divide. Within the farm bill that Congress passes every five years is funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that offer grants and technical assistance to farmers, landowners and ranchers to meet conservation goals. These voluntary, incentive-based programs are extremely popular, to the point they are badly oversubscribed. Nationally, as many as 75% of qualified applicants are turned away, which means that demand for conservation on 13.8 million acres goes unmet because of inadequate funding every year.
Last year, a coalition of businesses, farms and groups fought to fix this shortage, and succeeded in securing $20 billion for farm bill conservation programs through the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest investment in conservation since the Dust Bowl.
Specific to South Dakota, we have proof that incentive-based programs work. For years, grasslands throughout the Great Plains have been converted to cropland at an unsustainable rate — partially to feed a growing population, but also because of a disconnect between public policy and on-the-ground reality. Sodsaver, which has been implemented in South Dakota and other states in the region, addressed that disconnect by reducing crop insurance assistance for farmers who choose to break up native sod and convert it to cropland. Now, Sens. John Thune, R-South Dakota, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, are aiming to take Sodsaver nationwide through the American Prairie Conservation Act.
Thune, who authored Sodsaver provisions in the 2008, 2014 and 2018 farm bills, is an example of a policymaker who understands the value of good-government, cost-saving solutions.
Now, Congress is negotiating the details of a farm bill that could touch $1 trillion, which is why the $20 billion promise to arm farmers with conservation tools is so important. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
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