Conservation panel

Panelists talk conservation at Dakotafest in Mitchell. They are Kevin Robling, left, Jeff Zimprich, Rick Vallery, Anthony Bly and Matt Morloch.

In a year with endless water, low commodity prices and troubling environmental reports, Dakotafest offered panels to help address all of those concerns.

The biggest panel, featuring speakers from the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (GFP), Pheasants Forever, the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and the South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension office, focused on how conservation tactics can translate to profits.

The talk brought together conservation leaders to discuss new programs Aug. 20 at the farm show in Mitchell the panel included GFP deputy secretary Kevin Robling; Jeff Zimprich, South Dakota state conservationist with the NRCS; Matt Morlock, assistant director for Pheasants Forever in South Dakota; Rick Vallery, advisor to the state department of ag; and Anthony Bly, an SDSU Extension soils specialist.

Two key programs discussed included Gov. Kristi Noem’s newest Second Century Initiative, which is aimed at promoting and expanding pheasant habitat, and the Every Acre Counts program, which provides incentives for producers to take marginal lands out of production.

“Why should we keep growing a cash crop on that area?” Bly said. “The program takes that land out of production with a bit of incentive and funds to seed that down to grass and broadleaf perennials. We want to make sure there is a working lands focus.”

While Second Century is getting off the ground having been announced in January, Every Acre Counts is fully operational, Bly said, and it has been working mainly with eroded lands and sandy soils. The only caveat, Bly said, is that there are limitations on haying and grazing during wildlife nesting periods.

These two programs, however, are not all that is left. Robling added that there are dozens of individual conservation programs where landowners can choose to commit to contracts ranging from three- to 30-years. They prove options to every producer, he said, and avoid a “one-size-fits-all” approach to conservation.

“The list just goes on and on and on, but every farm and ranch looks at programs in different ways,” Robling said. “Sometimes the list is just too long and you can get overwhelmed with how many options are on the table.”

It’s not about finding a simple solution as much as finding the right program, Vallery added. He said has been interested in conservation and habitat reformation for a long time because he likes the idea of changing with the times, he said.

“If you have an opportunity to change, then we need to be changing,” Vallery said.

Landowners are finding more value in conservation, he said. Groups are discussing ways to lower crop insurance premiums if conservation practices are being used on that operation. Vallery hopes to put that plan in action soon.

“Yes there is value in conservation like there is value in agriculture,” he said.

The main driver for conservation practices on marginal grounds comes from simple math, Robling said. GFP staff calculated that for every acre of net-zero production on an operation, it takes 15-20 well producing acres to make up for it. The math just doesn’t add up for most producers, and it should entice them towards conservation, Robling said.

It can take years to reverse the course set by overproduction, he added, but during those down years, haying and grazing can make up for lost production.

The missing key in the discussion, Bly said, comes from people who aren’t working on the land – absentee landowners and the average consumer. Farmers understand why they are trying to produce a crop on marginal lands, but many regulators and even fewer consumers don’t, Bly said.

“They’ve lost connection to their land and they watch us,” Bly said. “Unfortunately, the last thing we want is added regulation so I believe in education rather than regulation.”

Bly encouraged those with poor marginal lands to consider conservation not only for the incentives and the land improvements, but to help market agriculture as an industry that understands it’s under the microscope.

“Anything that we can do to benefit habitat, soil health, water quality or even ROI is a win-win-win,” he said.

One factor in a producer’s ability to conserve depends on who owns the land. As of 2018, 43% of South Dakota land owners are absentee, according to Vallery.

That leaves is up to those renting lands to convince the owners and modify lease agreements.

“There needs to be some tradeoffs. Landlords may need to make a change and change the structure with their renters,” Zimprich said.

The group sees hope in younger generations for whom change comes more naturally. Using social media and marketing to peers have done wonders to help producers’ image while shaping change right at home.

“(Younger farmers look) broadly at different avenues and adding diversity or even just different thoughts,” Vallery said. “We need that out-of-the-box-type thinking.”

Getting started with cover crops or any new task is tough, the conservation panel acknowledged. A partnership between GFP and Pheasants Forever aims to make it easier. GFP has 18 private lands biologists across South Dakota to help producers find the best option for their land, and NRCS has a regional office in almost every country that can do the same thing.

With 81% of the land in South Dakota is privately owned, producers have to work together to make sure the land is there for future generations, Robling said.

Good things are not exclusive, Zimprich added. Working lands can also conserve and conservation land can produce for the average farmer, he said.

When Morlock joined Pheasants Forever, the team was beginning to realize that the largest pheasant population South Dakota had ever seen came in the 1950s and 60s, well before programs like CRP existed. Diversification and conservation came naturally before, he said, and they can come naturally now.

“It wasn’t big chunks of grass that got us there, it was people having diversified farms,” Morlock said. “Our grandpas and great-grandpas knew what they were doing just haying it instead of farming it. Programs that exist today can help us understand that we can have our cake and eat it too.”

At the end of the day, Vallery said it’s about getting South Dakotans together to realize that conservation isn’t against farming and farming can be done while maintaining the quality of life necessary for the planet to spin on.

“Everybody raises corn. Everybody raises soybeans. Some raise wheat and cattle, but they’re all part of agriculture,” Vallery said. “Our goal is to be as unified as possible. I am very confident that every time there is a discussion about soil health or conservation that we all win.”

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Reach Reporter Jager Robinson at 605-335-7300, email jager.robinson@lee.net or follow on Twitter @Jager_Robinson.