Farming from fence row to fence row

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Curt Zingula, guest columnist

“Farmers should plant fence row to fence row” was a directive made nearly half a century ago by Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz who opposed federal programs that idled cropland. More recently, “planting fence row to row” has been resurrected by some environmentalists as a derogatory accusation against farmers. Derogatory in the sense that it demonizes farmers for favoring production income over wildlife conservation.

However, annual USDA reports show that since 1980 total cropland in the U.S. has declined by 38 million acres. Since 1980, farmland voluntarily enrolled in federal conservation set-aside contracts has gone from next to nothing to almost 40 million acres, back down to about 28 million acres. The balance of lost cropland is due primarily to development. In perspective, Iowa plants 23 million acres of corn and soybeans.

Federal budget constraints have caused much of the back-peddling in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres. For the recently completed 2016 sign-up, 1.5 million acres was turned down by the USDA because that amount exceeded their acreage (spending) cap. The 2016 offering was made by a record number of farmers and ranchers.

Most new and re-enrolled acres now have to include some type of benefit for wildlife as well as water quality. Newer program acres must now be managed in a range from diverse season long flowering plants for pollinator species to simpler plantings with just two plant heights — one taller plant to attract bugs for hens and a shorter plant to attract bugs for her chicks.

This Fall I intend to plant pollinator habitat on some difficult to farm cropland which can be enrolled in the continuous sign-up CRP. According to the Farm Service Agency, other Iowa farmland owners planted 65,000 acres of pollinator habitat this federal fiscal year. That’s a big jump from 14,000 acres the year before which shows the interest this new program is generating.

When I started farming in the mid-70s, there were no turkeys, coyotes, otter, bald eagles or bobcats in my area. Deer were extremely rare. Those species and many other species of wildlife now flourish. Keep in mind that apex predator populations will not increase unless the rest of the food chain is doing well.

When I began fishing Northeast Iowa’s trout streams in the late ‘60s, there was little or no natural reproduction of trout due to poor water quality. Today, virtually all the trout streams in that rural area support natural trout reproduction. Obviously, farm conservation efforts have benefited aquatic wildlife.

Trees are also on the increase. Iowa DNR Forestry Chief, Paul Tauke, reports that forest acreage has nearly doubled since 1974. Considerable amounts of pasture land no longer used for livestock because of confinement and producer consolidation is being claimed by trees. CRP has also spurred tree planting.

From a biodiversity perspective, crops are mysteriously overlooked as a food source that benefits wildlife. Corn for example is consumed from the time the seed is planted in the Spring, through its growing stages, and then to a much larger extent as grain left by the combine during the winter. Millions of animals are sustained by scavenging corn during the winter.

The relevance of the ‘fence row to fence row’ mantra has expired and should be laid to rest. In its place, some recognition of the conservation progress that farmers and farmland owners have made would be appropriate.

• Curt Zingula is a Linn County grain farmer, director on the Iowa Watershed Improvement Board and past president of Linn County Farm Bureau.

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