As part of the 1985 Farm Bill, the Congress implemented rules for farmers and landowners to follow if they wished to be receive government farm program payments in the future. These regulations focused on areas that were considered the most environmentally fragile – wetlands and highly erodible soils. Not all farmers were happy with these rules because it forced them to change many of their production practices. On many fields with rolling hillsides, they were told to leave crop residue on the surface in order to stop the erosion of the topsoil. This was quite a change for those who had spent decades moldboard plowing field after field. They could also no longer, without government permission, drain any wet areas on their properties that might make these tillable tracts easier to farm. In theory, the government believed that these rules would help protect the environment (which I think they have for the most part), yet many farmers did not like the idea that “big brother” was telling them how to run their businesses. However, most farmers and landowners did comply because thirty years ago the annual government farm program payment was the only thing keeping them financially afloat.
Over the past three decades, farmers have accepted conservation compliance as part of the guidelines they must follow to stay in business and modern equipment, chemicals, and no-till practices have made life much easier. In the most recent Farm Bill that passed, adherence to protecting the environment was still a priority but Congress realized that many of the compliance rules had to be adapted because farmers would no longer be receiving direct payments from the government. However, since the U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing crop insurance premiums, the USDA mandated that farmers still follow conservation guidelines or they would no longer receive these subsidies. An article on the University of Illinois’ farmdocdaily website (Reviewing USDA’s Revised Conservation Compliance Regulation) provides an excellent overview of the revised rules and why they were made.
Perhaps the most important fact for farmland owners to understand… they, too, will be penalized if their tenant does not comply with the conservation rules. This could not only cost them money, but also their farm may be environmentally damaged. So even though these laws seem antiquated in today’s high-tech agricultural world, they must still be followed… if for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do.