Farmers Get to Choose Between Poverty and Husbandry

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had a good article highlighting a dilemma that farmers will face in upcoming seasons: choosing between conservation and care of environmentally sensitive tracts on their lands and plowing that land under to squeeze out more dollars while crop prices are high.

For the past 25 years, the federal government has compensated farmers for maintaining environmentally sensitive lands as grasslands instead of plowing it under. This has had the dual benefit of maintaining some natural habitat as well as putting a cap on crops – all things being equal, a farmer might try to plow every inch of his or her land, theoretically offering a little extra cash, but, when everyone does it, ultimately driving prices down and causing ruin. This is the kind of program that is often portrayed by opponents as “paying farmers not to farm,” suggesting images of farmers sitting on porches, doing nothing and growing rich. (I want to see that farmer, if he exists anywhere – clearly people who create and believe this stuff don’t live anywhere near farm country.) In fact, the program has covered less than 10 percent of land in Minnesota (which is the state with the most participation), and the land is generally hilly land that might erode easily. With the land in native grass instead of under the plow, it’s led to decreases in soil erosion as well as significant reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus flowing down the Mississippi and contributing to the “dead zone” off the coast of Louisiana.

But now, with austerity the word in Washington, your good representatives in Congress are eyeing the program as a great way to save billions of dollars over the next decade or so, so that we can maintain our low tax rates for rich folks. And farmers, meanwhile, are realizing that if crop prices stay where they are, they can make more money by plowing that land. The long-term harm from doing so either won’t be felt in their lifetimes (even though topsoil takes thousands of years to grow, there will still be some of it left by the time they retire) and the downstream effects, including water pollution, don’t really effect them.

The weakness in the article, and in all the discussion about farm subsidies, is that this shouldn’t be viewed as an individual farmer’s dilemma. The wealth we’re pissing away is the commonwealth. We have much of the richest farmland on earth, and yet for the past century our free market has been encouraging farmers to freely flush it down the rivers, along with a lot of cheap poison in the form of pesticides. The mechanism for this is an increasingly efficient “supply chain” (originally, organized mercantile markets that helped keep prices low; increasingly, vertically integrated mega-companies like ConAgra and Cargill that have sucked the wealth out of the farm belt and into their shareholders’ pockets, seeing this as a reward for their efficiency). Farmers can barely cover their costs, unless they cut corners with machinery and chemicals that help increase annual yields but which degrade the land for the long-term.

We’ve managed to steer at least some national discussion to the need for building infrastructure, although Congress has proved shy to invest in it, when the votes have been tallied. It’s time we think about our natural resources, particularly the finite ones like good soil, and start thinking about investing there also. For our future, if we choose to have one.

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2 thoughts on “Farmers Get to Choose Between Poverty and Husbandry

  1. Many of the acres put into government plans will never be planted to row crops. The newer, larger machinery of the last few years is not suited to those steeper slopes.
    Some large tracts may come into production, but in many cases will not yield an economically sufficient crop. Land put into government programs was usually the worst that was in production.
    Most of the nitrogen and phosphorus found in our lakes, rivers and streams has been found to be of “natural” origin, not from farmed land. Swampland is the largest source of these elements.
    Farming practices have changed significantly since the dust bowl years. Even if some of this land is returned to production, do not expect there to be a great change in either erosion or pollution of our waters.

    • Michael, thanks for the comments. I’d love to see the source that shows that “Most of the nitrogen and phosphorus found in our lakes, rivers and streams has been found to be of “natural” origin, not from farmed land.” Or are we picking nits to make a point. In the lakes around where I live, most of the sources are home fertilizer, livestock, and from growing corn. Worse, because the land is less suited for plowing it’s likely to be more prone to erosion, whether in wind or from water. I hope you’re right that farming practices are more sustainable now than they once were, but even in the boom years preceding the dust bowl, the overplowing wasn’t viewed as rational by calmer heads. Granted, I don’t know a broad swath of farmers, but the logic of putting these acres back into production makes sense to them, given how thin their margins are in an average year.

      In any case, thanks for the comments. I’m always willing to be wrong — and I hope I am in this case.

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