This fall, Congress is still scheduled to begin debate on a new farm bill. Environmental and conservation groups would like to see significantly more spending on conservation programs. In the Minnesota River valley, a program like the ones environmentalists are pushing for has restored more than 50,000 acres.
Del Wehrspann, a lifelong conservationist and avid fisherman, boats along the Minnesota River in the central part of the state. He has campaigned to restore the river's bottomlands through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. Some conservationists hope to increase funding for conservation in the new farm bill, which will soon be debated in Congress. (MPR Photo/Mary Losure)
WHEN CATTLE BUYER DEL WEHRSPANN WAS GROWING UP ON AN IOWA FARM
in the 1950s and '60s, he saw the floodplain of the Des Moines River plowed up and planted in crops. Wehrspann is a lifelong conservationist and avid fisherman. He watched, dismayed, as the river's fish and wildlife languished. So in 1968, he moved north to the Minnesota River valley, where the bottomland was still unplowed.
"But then we lived here not very long, and I seen the exact same things taking place that had taken place in Iowa when I was a boy - draining every last wetland, tearing out every last fence, plowing everything that could be plowed for agricultural production."
But these days, as Wehrspann drives along the Minnesota River, he sees something he never expected in his lifetime - the river's bottomland is being restored.
It's happening because Wehrspann and other citizens in the valley helped convince the state and federal governments to begin what's known as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. It pays farmers an annual fee to take environmentally sensitive land out of cultivation. Now cattails, willows, and young cottonwoods grow on bottomland that just a few years ago was planted with rows of corn and soybeans.
Already, Wehrspann has noticed changes on the river, where he often fishes from his pontoon boat. This spring, when he floated past a field his neighbor has restored to a cattail marsh, the water running into the river was clear, not muddy with soil washing off a plowed field.
"This spring, the walleyes spawned. There was quite a few of them, nice fish," Wehrspann says. "For years, the Department of Natural Resources told us that we couldn't have natural walleye production in this area because the water was too dirty."
Wehrspann putters downstream, past wood ducks, great blue herons, kingfishers, a black crowned night heron, and a soaring bald eagle. At a bend in the river, he beaches the boat and walks through land that was once diked and drained, and is now a wetland. The mud is littered with freshwater mussel shells and crisscrossed with animal tracks.
"This land is in production. It may not be in agricultural production, but as far as the deer, the other wildlife, the water quality, the aesthetics, it's producing something."
- Conservationist Del Wehrspann
"This land is in production. It may not be in agricultural production, but as far as the deer, the other wildlife, the water quality, the aesthetics, it's producing something," Wehrspann says.
Under conservation programs similar to the one in the Minnesota River Valley, farmers nationwide have restored more than 33 million acres of environmentally sensitive land since 1985. But environmental and conservation groups would like to see that total rise as high as 45 million over the next 10 years.
Tim Searchinger, senior attorney for the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Defense Fund, says his group is backing a bill that would increase conservation spending to $5.5 billion annually. At that level, it would make up more than one-quarter of the farm bill's budget.
It's not clear how well such proposals will fare, but Searchinger believes the time is right for a shift. He says more spending on conservation would spread payments out to many more farmers.
"It's become increasingly obvious to people that these traditional farm programs leave out a large number of farmers," says Searchinger. "Nationwide, two-thirds of all the farmers don't get any farm payments, and of the payments that are provided, two-thirds go to the largest 10 percent."
Searchinger says members of Congress from states like Wisconsin and California - where farmers receive relatively little in farm subsidies - are starting to wake up to the inequities, especially as farm bill spending balloons.
He says legislators from those states are increasingly supporting conservation programs. And in a recent boost for conservationists, a new report by the Bush administration proposes a similar shift from traditional subsidies to conservation programs.