The 1985 farm bill mandated farmers receiving USDA benefits to treat land considered by USDA to be highly erodible in a sustainable way.
They were to make these conservation compliance plans with local soil conservation officers, stick to the plans or risk losing their eligibility for USDA program benefits then and now.
And tobacco production poses unique challenges to such plans.
“Those plans, as modified through the years, are still in force. If you are out of compliance with the existing plans on any land you farm, then you are at risk of losing eligibility for many USDA program benefits on all land you farm,” said Bob Pearce, tobacco agronomist with the University of Kentucky Extension.
In the last three decades, technology and improved management practices have reduced field erosion across the Southeast. A lot of the highly erodible land, or HEL, was placed into the Conservation Reserve Program, too, and no-till row crop farming has contributed to greater soil conservation.
When farmers now make decisions about cropping, or when they buy or rent new land, they don’t always think to make sure it all jives with existing compliance plans, in some cases plans created more than two decades ago.
“Highly erodible land and wetland compliance never went away, but the calls and requests concerning the issue definitely reduced over the years,” said Kenny Smallwood, Kentucky’s Natural Resources Conservation Service agronomist.
Laws get modified, and in 2008 another farm bill came. As part of that, the fifth edition of the National Food Security Act manual was released to NRCS and Farm Service Agency in 2010, which updated law regarding the 1985 farm bill.
It outlined new structure and protocols to enforce conservation compliance plans, Smallwood said.
Conservation back at forefront
But more than the manual, Smallwood said, soil conservation is back at the forefront in some regions because:
• Higher commodity prices have brought more land into production. Land without a past crop history has more restrictive HEL compliance rules.
• More land appears to be leased or rented now, and the producer who temporarily farms the land thinks more about short-term production than long-term conservation.
• Newer producers often don’t know farm bill requirements. This is especially true of tobacco. Many older tobacco farmers were near retirement and the quota buyout took most of those folks out of the picture.
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So what should farmers do about soil conservation compliance?
If a landowner rents his land out or sells it to another farmer and a violation occurs, then both of them may lose USDA benefits, Smallwood said.
Basically, most USDA program benefits can be curtailed or stopped if a farmer is chronically out of sync with conservation compliance plans, including loans, disaster loans and payments, CRP payments, EQIP payments and other farm assistance programs.
Federally subsidized crop insurance eligibility is not affected by conservation compliance, but there is an effort to change this in the next farm bill.
A farmer with 300 acres of tobacco on one farm and several thousand acres of grain on other farms, Smallwood said, would be at risk of being ineligible for all USDA programs on the grain crops if the tobacco fields were found to be out of compliance, even if all the grain land met all requirements.
The violations are considered to be caused by all affiliated with the tract of land. Personal program eligibility will be affected.
The NRCS spot checks about 5 percent of land tracts in all counties each year for conservation compliance, Smallwood said, or about 1,200 individual checks in Kentucky last year.
If a farmer is not sure about compliance on a piece of land or if the conservation plan is out of date, he needs to call local NRCS offices for help.
A year’s time is often allowed to get plans modified or cropping plans changed to get back into compliance. It is a lot better to voluntarily seek help than to be identified in a spot check.
The old saying goes: Tobacco is just tough on soil.
“Because of the intense tillage we do to get the land ready for transplanting, and the lack of cover left in the fields after harvest, tobacco is potentially one of the most erosive cropping systems,” Pearce said.
“It is often much more difficult to meet erosion reduction goals with tobacco in the rotation than it is with other crops.”
“In Kentucky, we often get a big rain right after the tobacco is set or when preparing the land, which can end up being disked at least twice, sometimes three times. The soil ends up like flour … You’re going to have erosion,” Smallwood said.
For example, burley production on just a four-percent slope could lead to 10 to 12 tons of soil erosion per acre annually.
Back-to-back burley production could end up losing as much as 24 tons of soil per acre.
Solutions are available
But adding to this rotation a few years of sod, a soil holder, could bring the average loss to within 7 tons per acre per year. This a reasonable outcome that would meet highly erodible land compliance requirements on most Kentucky soils, Smallwood said.
There are different levels, or classes, of highly erodible land. With conventionally-tilled tobacco on the least erodible class, erosion control practices include cover crops, strip-cropping or permanent grass strips, which might be all that is needed.
On the more highly erodible fields, rotation with sod or no-till crops is the key.
“On many upland fields in the burley and dark tobacco regions, rotations with three to five years of sod for every one year of tobacco may be required,” said Paul Denton, burley tobacco specialist with University of Tennessee and University of Kentucky.
No-till or strip-till can help tobacco farmers stay in conservation compliance.
“In the early 1990s this was the way many cotton and grain crop producers were able to stay in compliance with minimal effects on their operations. At that time conservation-tillage was not seen as a viable alternative for tobacco, but advances in weed control in tobacco have changed that,” Denton said.
Research shows that strip-till systems give tobacco yields equal to conventionally-tilled systems across a variety of conditions. No-till also performs well on loamy, well drained soils but may not do as well as strip-till on less favorable soils.
“When combined with cover crops, use of conservation-tillage may allow much shorter rotations, perhaps allowing even the more erodible fields to be in tobacco up to half of the crop rotation.” Denton said.
With tobacco’s long history of intense tillage, fields are prone to compaction, which can hurt yields because tobacco roots have a difficult time growing in or through compacted soil layers, Pearce said.
“As the size of tobacco farms has gotten larger, we have seen an increase in the potential for soil compaction to reduce growth. With larger acreages to cover, growers have a tendency to begin tillage and transplanting operations when the soil is still wet below the surface.
“This can lead to situation where the surface may be reasonably well prepared, but there is a zone of compaction hidden in the root zone,” Pearce said.
A shallow-rooted plant suffers quickly during dry weather, and at times will not have access to all the available nutrients in the soil. Severe compaction can cost 200 to 400 pounds of yield lose per acre.
It’s hard to do, but growers need to avoid tilling soils that are marginally wet, watching soil conditions 3 to 4 inches below the surface.
A cover crop can lessen soil compaction. The roots of a winter cereal, for example, can penetrate and loosen mildly compacted layers. The cover crop can add much-needed organic matter, too. The sod rotation, too, strengthens soils and help fields resist compaction.
“Many burley tobacco growers have asked in recent years why they don’t seem to get the higher yields they have been accustomed to in the past. There could be a number of answers to that question, but at least one is to consider if hidden soil compaction might be limiting the potential of the crop,” Pearce said.
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