Conservation officials using aerial photography to monitor farmers

Iowa is the second state in which the practice has been implemented

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Federal conservation officials used aerial photography last month to help ensure Iowa farmers are complying with conservation rules.

Unlike recent controversial surveillance flights conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, however, these flights have not raised farmers’ hackles.

“To the best of my knowledge, we have had no complaints,” said Marty Adkins, state resource conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

One of the big differences between the conservation service flights and the EPA flights, which targeted water pollution at livestock feedlots in Iowa and Nebraska, is that the National Resources Conservation Service, as required by law, notified affected farmers in advance of the flights.

Operating without that legal constraint, the EPA did not notify the livestock producers it targeted, opening itself to charges of spying on farmers and invading their privacy.

After conducting a pilot project last year in western Iowa, conservation service officials expanded the project to all tracts randomly selected for annual conservation compliance reviews across most of the state.

“We found the aerial images provided a much better vantage point to see damaged waterways and ephemeral gully erosion — both top natural resource concerns in our state,” Adkins said.

Even with the photos, “a significant majority of the farms will require an on-site visit” to determine compliance, but the photos will expedite the visits and make them more efficient, Adkins said.

Iowa is the second state in which the practice has been implemented, following Montana.

Last year’s pilot project included 635 sites in 40 counties, with conservation service staffers taking the photos. This year officials estimate 1,620 sites were reviewed in about 90 counties, with the photos taken by GPS-synched, high-resolution cameras attached to the belly of the aircraft.

The 1985 farm bill requires the conservation service to check a random sampling of highly erodible fields and wetlands each year to ensure farmers are following the provisions in their conservation plans.

Just over 100 million acres of U.S. cropland are highly erodible, about 25 percent of all cropland. Though Iowa is generally considered to have predominantly flat terrain, it has its share of highly erodible farm ground, especially in eastern, southern and western Iowa, Adkins said.

Conservation compliance is required for maintaining eligibility for many federal Department of Agriculture programs, but the extent to which it will be required in the next farm bill, now under debate in Congress, remains to be seen.

Under current rules, a high percentage of farmers adhere to their conservation plans at least in part because the federal government can withhold direct subsidy payments — which totaled about a half-billion dollars to Iowa farmers in 2010 — if they do not.

It appears, however, that direct subsidy payments will be eliminated from the next farm bill, with the bulk of government support to farmers provided through subsidized crop insurance, which is not linked to conservation requirements. Nor was such a linkage included in the farm bill passed recently by the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Efforts to re-establish that link in the next farm bill — favored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa — have met with stiff resistance from farm organizations.

The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation has led the way in advocating the elimination of direct payments in favor of an expanded crop insurance subsidy. Farm Bureau leaders have described the organization’s stance as a fiscally responsible means to provide a safety net for food producers.

Farm and insurance groups also have strongly resisted attaching conservation compliance requirements to the crop insurance program, asserting that doing so could weaken farmers’ ability to secure crop loans and undermine the partnership between the federal government and crop insurance companies.

Craig Cox, a senior vice president at Environmental Working Group, a leading critic of farm subsidies, worries that conservation will suffer unless the government requires it as a condition for federal benefits.

In the first decade after Congress introduced conservation compliance in the 1985 farm bill, soil erosion declined by 40 percent, with a corresponding improvement in water quality, Cox said.

On average, taxpayers pick up 62 percent of the crop insurance premium bought by farmers. The cost of these subsidies to the federal government has increased from $1.5 billion in 2002 to $7.4 billion in 2011 and is projected to cost about $9 billion a year over the next decade.

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