Congress, farm conservation and the shmitta year


A few years ago I attended a conference at the Pearlstone Center in Maryland. The connections made there between farm conservation and the teachings of the Torah were inspiring. Recently, Jakir Manela, the executive director at Pearlstone, shared with me the preparations at its farming operation for the shmitta year.

Manela noted that, according to the Torah, shmitta is the final year of a calendar cycle, when land of Israel is left fallow, debts are forgiven and a host of other agricultural and economic adjustments are made to ensure the maintenance of an equitable, just and healthy society. In response, Pearlstone will take most of its farmland out of production and instead nourish it through the use of cover crops. The center also will step back from production and set a new farm business plan, and allow its staff to rest and rejuvenate through personal development and community service as well.

I am awed by the reverence this approach shows to the land, to farmers and to growing the food we eat. I am deeply saddened, however, when I reflect upon the $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by Congress last month. Congress made huge cuts to conservation programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) that supports conservation practices on cropland, pastureland and rangeland, totaling $402 million over 10 years. This cut means 2.3 million fewer acres enrolled in the program. The bill also cut the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) by $136 million for this fiscal year.

While the CSP is designed to reward farmers and ranchers who have a history of integrating conservation, EQIP will help them develop a conservation practice for the first time. Both programs support practices such as cover crops, diverse cropping systems, as well as rotational grazing practices on pasture, rangeland and cropland restored to a grass-based system.

These are the conservation-based farming practices we need more support for, not less. Especially in the face of climate change, impacts on agriculture and the increased need to protect and restore water quality.

It was Charles Shapiro, a Center for Rural Affairs Advisory Board member, who first reminded me that during the shmitta year, farmers observe a biblical Sabbath to let lands in Israel rest.
Charlie pointed out that it is interesting to consider that while farmers in Israel are choosing how to follow the shmitta laws regarding resting of the soil, Congress, through this spending bill, is trying to dismantle America’s modern conservation support system. Agricultural science still uses fallow in some situations to rest the land, but present-day conservation includes many other practices designed to help farmers protect and improve their fields, soils and our environment.

Moreover, while Congress cut the conservation programs that help farmers and ranchers integrate risk management through conservation-based farming practices, they left intact the unlimited federal crop insurance premium subsidies and farm program payments that encourage risk taking and agricultural consolidation by the nation’s largest and wealthiest farms.

Annual spending bills should help create opportunity and move us toward solutions for the long term. And they should respect the land and water of God’s creation and the farmers and ranchers that work the land and toil to preserve it for future generations.

What I learned from Manela and Shapiro makes me even more disappointed by the anti-farmer, anti-conservation spending bill Congress passed in December.

Congress laid fallow most of the year, not in a restorative way, but in a way that creates dysfunction leading to 11th-hour, must-pass legislation that cut the conservation programs farmers use year in and year out to support practices like cover cropping and many others. While I am not Jewish, I hope that Congress finds a way to learn from the Jewish community and the shmitta year. I know I did.
Traci Bruckner is senior associate for agriculture and conservation policy at the Center for Rural Affairs.

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