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Soil conservation group talks farm bill

FARGO, N.D. - This month's national election results and the continued high cost of production farming were two issues dominating discussion at the 68th annual meeting of the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts.

FARGO, N.D. - This month's national election results and the continued high cost of production farming were two issues dominating discussion at the 68th annual meeting of the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts.

A surprise guest at the event was Bill Wilson, president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, the nongovernmental organization representing the nation's 3,000 conservation districts and the 16,000 men and women who serve on their boards.

"I really did want to come to North Dakota because I think you have a lot going for you," he told the crowd.

He says that when looking at what's being done with North Dakota's farmland in the name of conservation and sustainable ag practices, he sees the future of American farming.

Wilson has a long track record in both agriculture and the business of conservation. He is one of the founders of the National Watershed Coalition. He also owns a cow, horse and mule ranch in east-

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central Oklahoma, an area that was nearly devastated by the Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s.

Wilson, who stood at the podium in front of a banner stating "Sustaining our Natural Resources," says the passage of the next farm bill holds great promise for the conservation cause.

National priorities

The NACD has prepared a list of eight principles it hopes to see included in the farm bill. They include a commitment to fund conservation programs at least at the level of the 2002 farm bill, while acknowledging that dollars can be spent more wisely by improving efficiency.

The organization also supports the development of alternative energy from woody biomass, forest byproducts, new and traditional crops and agricultural waste materials. The full list of the farm bill principles is posted on the group's Web site, nacdnet.org .

Wilson warns that Washington's budget will be tighter than it was when the 2002 farm bill was crafted, adding that his own organization has had its own budget challenges.

Making budget

Its previous staff list of 35 has been trimmed down and some positions now are part time. Wilson says many of its problems would be solved if local districts had enough funding to pay NACD dues.

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On the other hand, 45 districts who weren't able to pay those dues in 2005 have paid in full for this year. Wilson says that for the first time since he can remember, the national organization hasn't been forced to dip into its reserve funds.

He expects next year to be more expensive because of battles brewing over the 2007 farm bill. Wilson says if more people understood his organization's goals and concerns, it would be less expensive and time consuming to win support for those policies.

That's why, topping the list of the NACD's goals for 2006 to '10, is a commitment to public relations and outreach.

"Not enough people in this country know who we are and what we do," Wilson says.

Reaching youth

Another goal is to work more closely with schools across the country, something that's become a bigger challenge since passage of the No Child Left Behind federal education law. The law's strict testing standards have prompted many school districts to eliminate curriculum that does not specifically address those standards.

However, Wilson believes conservation curriculum can be incorporated into history and math curriculum, if teachers and administrators are willing to be creative. In addition, NACD is embarking on a new partnership with FFA, offering more high school students the opportunity to learn about conservation and natural resources.

There's also a push to lobby the nation's Capitol. This past summer, more than a dozen congressional staffers and representatives of the executive branch were taken on a tour of successful conservation programs outside Washington.

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In July, NACD is planning its first congressional reception on Capitol Hill, likely to occur as lawmakers are debating the next federal budget.

Looking to the future, Wilson emphasizes that NACD's resolutions all start from the grass-roots level. Proposals originate in district meetings, and if approved, move up to the national conference for vote. He encouraged those attending the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts to make their needs known and to follow those requests through the approval process.

Wilson is retiring soon as NACD president. Ironically, the president of North Dakota's Association of Soil Conservation Districts also is wrapping up her last year in office.

State soil president

Roxanne Johnson has had her hands full during her tenure. Her husband has a cow-calf operation in southwestern North Dakota. Meanwhile, Johnson is a full-time student at North Dakota State University in Fargo, pursuing a degree in natural resources management.

As a 20-year-old, Johnson says she got a crash course in agriculture when she signed on to be part of a custom combining crew. Under the impression that she only had to know how to drive a stick shift, Johnson says a more experienced worker patiently taught her how to drop off loads at the elevator. She says the experience taught her to be patient with those who have little experience in the area of natural resources but are willing to learn.

Keeping it local

Johnson acknowledges Wilson's concerns about local offices paying their national dues. She says her office is working with state officials to increase funding at that level, in hopes that it will both strengthen the national organization and allow local offices to better serve their citizens.

A recent survey confirmed that district funding is the top concern among conservation officials. One of her goals is to get funding to the level where each office has a person available to work with local producers.

Budgets aside, Johnson says conservation agencies need to keep tabs on national trends and make better use of conservation resources.

"We can't live in our own little world," she says.

Farm bill expectations

This year's annual meeting also included a panel discussion on the 2007 farm bill. Wilson returned to the stage for that discussion, joined by Scott Stofferahn, deputy state director for Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Keith Trego, executive director of the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust; and Eric Aasmundstad, president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau.

Stofferahn says the current federal budget situation doesn't bode well for a big farm bill.

"Last time, we had a major budget surplus, but this time, it's a deficit," he says.

He also believes improved commodity prices may make it more difficult to achieve any baseline increases.

Stofferahn believes there may be more sharply divided regional interests in the farm bill debate this time around.

Internal problems

Internal battles may flare up this time, too, according to the North Dakota Farm Bureau president.

"The ag community isn't as cohesive as it once was," Aasmundstad says. "I think we'll see more north versus south, fruit and vegetable growers vs. other commodity groups, and, I hate to say it, sugar against the rest of us."

"Farm groups in the Upper Midwest need to get on the same page," he warns.

Aasmundstad also see divisiveness in the debate over conservation acreage. He says, in talking with area farmers, those who are middle-aged or younger seem to believe the Conservation Reserve Program is one of the worst things to happen to agriculture. He says older retired farmers favor it because it is easier to sign a government contract than argue with a tenant.

Aasmundstad says he believes the Conservation Reserve Program was created to idle fragile land, but never was intended to be used as a wildlife program.

"You wonder why small towns are drying up? Just look at all the farmland that's been turned over to grass," he says.

Fellow panelist Trego agrees that conservation issues will play an important role in the upcoming farm bill debate.

"The need to cooperate between conservation and agriculture has never been greater than it is right now," he says.

CRP support

Trego says his group believes CRP is perhaps one of the most important ag-

related government programs available.

"We would like to see it maintained and the general signups continued," he says.

Trego points out that native grasslands have disappeared in many states and believes North Dakota has a rare opportunity to preserve that landscape. His group is proposing a "sod-saver" program, aimed at preventing the loss of CRP acres to biofuel crops.

Although he disagrees with Aasmundstad on CRP, Trego remains optimistic when looking ahead to the next farm bill.

"We believe among energy, environmental and all of these groups, we can make a good bill," he offers.

"I think we can have it all."

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