Every five years, one of the most significant pieces of legislation to circulate through Capitol Hill comes along in the form of the Farm Bill.
Programs within each Farm Bill cover the country’s food, farms, anti-hunger programs, energy, rural development and numerous other critical infrastructure programs. The officially-named Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 remains in force through the year, with some provisions extended beyond 2023.
According to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, more than 70% of the country’s land, independent of Alaska, is private. Half of the United States is cropland, pastureland and rangeland owned by ranchers and farmers.
That equates to roughly 5 million individual farmers or ranchers who are charged with the responsibility of being stewards of the country’s wild places.
Given that ducks and geese frequent croplands from Canada to Louisiana, the bipartisan Farm Bill stands as the federal government’s most significant annual investment in conservation. Several of its various programs and incentives are designed to enhance private land conservation and benefit wildlife habitat.
The omnibus Farm Bill includes $428 billion in annual funding for programs affecting commodities, crop insurance, nutrition, conservation and more. An estimated $6 billion is available for conservation annually.
Headed for the Hill
The Farm Bill also has the attention of conservation organizations Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited, who dedicate significant resources to ensure programs and dollars tied to waterfowl conservation remain in the Farm Bill. Their efforts on Capitol Hill are critical to the future of ducks, geese and their habitat.
One of the organizations’ chief strategies is to get hunters, conservationists and landowners in front of legislators to do what Ed Penny, Ducks Unlimited’s director of public policy for the Southern Region, calls “citizen duck hunter advocacy.”
On Penny’s invitation this past spring, a number of dedicated sportsmen represented and advocated for Arkansas on a trip to Washington, D.C.
The group included Greenhead editor Brent Birch; Cason Short, a third-generation rice farmer from Woodruff County and proprietor of the Bill Byers Hunter Club; Scott Hilburn of North Little Rock, an attorney who also owns, buys and sells agricultural and recreational properties; and Little Rock’s Seth Hampton, also an attorney, whose family owns and operates the Two Rivers Duck Club near the confluence of the Cache and White Rivers.
Each individual has used or applied for conservation programs contained in the Farm Bill as part of their efforts to improve the ability of our lands to benefit wildlife.
Allies in Ag
Arkansas is naturally aligned with agriculture. It is the state’s largest industry, contributing $16 billion annually to the state’s economy, according to Arkansas Farm Bureau, with 49,346 farms (97% privately owned).
Arkansas is No. 1 in the nation in rice production and No. 3 in producing cotton. There are 14.5 million acres of land resources that consist of workable farmland, and Arkansas has an additional 18,778,660 acres of forest land.
The state’s congressional delegation is therefore keenly aware of the importance of agriculture, hunting and fishing to Arkansas’ wellbeing. Sen. John Boozeman (R) is the highest-ranking minority member on the Senate Agriculture Committee and Rep. Rick Crawford (R) is on the House Agriculture Committee. Bozeman and Crawford, along with Rep. French Hill (R) and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R), are avid waterfowlers and value what duck hunting means to our state.
The visiting waterfowlers were charged with meeting with each of the state’s delegates to discuss the application of Farm Bill-related conservation programs and how they benefit waterfowl. Issues range from the importance of hunting to Arkansas’ rural economy to reducing reliance on the dwindling aquifers used to irrigate farmland and Arkansas’ flooded timber.
The group even discussed the importance of the Farm Bill’s “Swampbuster” legislation, which prevents breeding ground wetlands far from Arkansas from being converted to cropland.
“From talking to the Arkansas delegation about the importance of the Farm Bill both as a rice producer and a duck hunter to sharing stories about GPS-marked birds and what research is opening our eyes to, it was a great opportunity to leave a bigger mark than just on the acreage that I see every day,” Short said.
There were also constituents from Texas, Kansas, North Dakota and other states using Ducks Unlimited’s Washington office as a home base. Some were serious hunters, others have significant land holdings in which waterfowl and other wildlife will winter. Each morning the constituents would disperse to Capitol Hill for meetings with their respective delegations, all with the goal of ensuring the federal government continues to allocate dollars for sound conservation practices and programs.
The personal experiences of hunter/conservationist landowners can carry significantly more weight than a lobbyist or interest group, as they are the individuals who have put the programs to use. The implementation and results of these federal programs let legislators know the Farm Bill dollars are well spent.
It was a chance to appreciate each legislator’s attention and knowledge of the subject, and, in most cases, to talk about duck hunting.
“As hunters and landowners we all embrace our roles as stewards of the land,” Short said. “We all try to promote conservation in our own area. Traveling with Ducks Unlimited to our nation’s capital gave me the opportunity to see how change can be made on a much broader scale, and it allowed me to impact that change.”
The efforts of Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl to benefit ducks, geese, and ultimately the waterfowler, are critical to ensuring those who are setting policy hear the people’s voices.
“This work never stops, so it’s always inspiring to have landowners and citizens engage on these issues,” Penny said. “The effort to travel to D.C. and go onto Capitol Hill with a clear vision of what is best for the resource requires leadership to acknowledge the need and to use your voice and energy to do something about it.”
Although it was a small group with short windows of time to spend with a senator or congressman, it is always hoped the words hit home. Multiply the efforts by every state and every hunter/conservationist/landowner that DU and Delta Waterfowl brought to Capitol Hill, and the initiatives build momentum.
The future of waterfowl habitat is critically dependent on Farm Bill legislation. Duck hunters everywhere would benefit from educating themselves and supporting othe rganizations and elected officials working on their behalf.