Between Soil and Society: New book traces history and development of U.S. conservation policy

Jonathan Coppess poses with copy of book
Jonathan Coppess

A new book by a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign expert in law and policy explores the history and development of the U.S. conservation policy, offering insight into how Congress works, how policy is put together, and the challenge of balancing narrow and public interests in addressing pressing agricultural and environmental topics. 

Jonathan Coppess, Gardner Associate Professor of Agricultural Policy in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics and an Illinois Extension Specialist, both part of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, took his knowledge and experiences to the press once again with Between Soil and Society. The book is his second surrounding agricultural policy, after his 2018 The Fault Lines of Farm Policy.

Coppess currently leads the Gardner Agricultural Policy Program and the Policy Design Lab. Previously, he served as Chief Counsel for the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, as well as Administrator of the Farm Service Agency at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was these experiences that led him to write his first book exploring the Farm Bill, and now have him circling back to dive deeper into the U.S. conservation policy.

“A lot of the motivation to write this book came from questions I had left over from my previous book,” Coppess explains. “In my first book, I looked at the history of Farm Bills, which was itself driven by questions I had when I worked on Farm Bills in the Senate. Coming out of that work were these questions about the conservation programs.”

Coppess also has his own personal interest in conservation programs, stemming from an early memory. His father, a farmer, got into conservation and started doing no-till in the late 1980s and early '90s. In his father, Coppess saw firsthand a producer willing to innovate in the conservation space, taking on risks and costs that were not greatly factored into policy. He witnessed how farmers thought about conservation, the challenges it brought, and the important components that conservation policy missed.

The big question Coppess kept coming back to was why it took so long for Congress to prioritize conservation assistance programs. From the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, to Soil Bank in the '50s, to 1985 when Congress began to focus more attention on conservation policy, Coppess identified gaps in treating conservation programs. He wrote Between Soil and Society to explain why Congress put so much attention and money into one set of policies and not the other. 

“I couldn’t escape it,” Coppess shared. “I kept trying to put the pieces of history together in an attempt to put forth a theory of why things play out the way they do.”

Coppess did not rely solely on his family’s history with conservation policy or his own experiences in legislation, although those do drive the way he asks questions. Instead, he pulls together historical legislative records, congressional debates, and hearing records. He focuses on the way the bills are assembled, diving into historical events like the Dust Bowl, and examining how Congress responded. He pieces it all together in an attempt to draw out answers from the public records. 

In writing the book, he also recognized the importance of understanding the subject matter the policies address, leading him to dive into soil science and how conservation practices work.

“That's what made it so much fun — I opened a door and there was all this other stuff I’d like to know about. There was never an end,” Coppess explained. “There are always more questions and more paths to explore. I found it really interesting, but I had to rein it in.”

The book will spark an interest with stakeholders in agricultural policy and conservation policy. However, it also provides a valuable perspective to a larger audience, offering insight into moving policy on topics beyond agriculture. 

“Ultimately I hope it contributes to improving the agricultural policy around this space,” Coppess shared. “The challenges of soil erosion, nutrient loss, climate change, those sorts of things — those aren’t just economic issues, so I hope it at least informs that thinking or prompts discussion.” 

The book was published by the University of Nebraska Press and is available for purchase.

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