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Trouble Downstream: Upgrading Conservation Compliance

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In the 1985 Farm Bill, Congress decided that as a quid pro quo for federal farm assistance, farmers receiving taxpayer support should control soil erosion on highly erodible lands used to grow subsidized crops. The policy principle was straightforward and widely embraced in conservation and agriculture policy circles: taxpayer support for agriculture should not inadvertently subsidize degradation of natural resources or the environment. Parallel policies were authorized in the 1985 law to prevent subsidies from encouraging conversion of fragile lands and wetlands to crop production.

In order to maintain their eligibility for federal farm benefits such as commodity crop subsidies and disaster payments, farmers were required to develop and implement a government-approved soil conservation plan specifying soil conservation practices. Common erosion reduction practices include: rotating crops, minimizing tillage, leaving soil covered with crop residue after harvest, and installing grassed buffers, etc. This program was called the Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC) Compliance provision or “conservation compliance,” for short.


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