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If a farmer is not sure about compliance on a piece of land or if the conservation plan is out of date, he needs to call local NRCS offices for help.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.