By Sen. John Thune
Agriculture, which is supported by hardworking farmers and ranchers across South Dakota, is the state’s top industry. It adds more than $20 billion to the economy each year, and, according to the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, “98% of farms in South Dakota are family owned and operated – in fact, over 2,500 South Dakota farms have been in the same family for more than 100 years.” That’s a pretty impressive statistic when you think about it, and it’s South Dakotans like them who I’m continually proud to fight for in the U.S. Senate.
More than 90 percent of South Dakota’s farms are enrolled in one or more conservation, safety net, or loan program that’s been authorized by the farm bill. And I’m no stranger to farm bills, as I’ve already written three of them during my time in Congress. The 2018 farm bill will be my fourth.
For more than one year now, with the expiration of the current farm bill already in sight, I’ve been leading by example and introducing numerous individual marker bills containing sound, common-sense policy initiatives. If we really want to get a farm bill to the president’s desk on time and avoid an unnecessary extension, we’ve got to put in the hard work today.
South Dakota farmers and ranchers are dedicated stewards of their land and rely on farm bill conservation programs to build their soil, provide wildlife habitat, and protect our water. One of the greatest challenges with applying the most effective conservation practices, like cover crops on working lands, for example, is measuring the economic value these practices can provide.
With my eighth farm bill proposal – bipartisan legislation I introduced in early March with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, our neighbor to the east – we could help farmers and land-grant universities better utilize the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) massive collection of conservation data and enable them to choose the best conservation practices that would improve productivity on farming operations while protecting individual farmer privacy.
Most recently – during National Agriculture Week, nonetheless – I introduced my ninth farm bill proposal. And there’s more to come, I might add.
This legislation, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Improvement and Rural Water System Access Act, would make important changes to the already popular conservation program that provides critical habitat to the state’s pheasant population and delivers a large infusion of cash to local economies each year. The bill would also make it less costly for rural water systems that cross U.S. Forest Service land by eliminating a rental fee that is charged when they do.
Many game species’ populations, including pheasants, which are economically significant to states like South Dakota, have been on the decline in recent years, and there’s an alarming correlation between these population drops and the loss of CRP acres and available habitat. Building on changes to CRP that I’ve already proposed, my latest legislation would define “species of economic significance” and add declining habitat for those species as a priority for targeting new or expanded CRP acres in South Dakota and other states.I recently met with USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and Sen. Pat Roberts, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and I’ve made my priorities clear as we approach the release of the Senate farm bill, which could come as early as April. South Dakota farmers and ranchers are lucky to have these two strong advocates for agriculture in their corner, too, and I’m committed to working with them and my colleagues to get this important work completed as soon as possible.