How Green It Is To Be (Un)Loved By You: Conservation Programs & The Farm Bill

So as mentioned in the previous post, with the “Secret” Farm Bill out, the process starting this coming January will be something of a blank slate, and much more open to both public comment and pressure from advocacy groups. This will be especially important for the three titles of the Farm Bill that, as of two weeks ago, looked to have the most to lose had the Supercommittee had its act together: Horticulture (home to the organics program), Food & Nutrition Assistance (home to SNAP, or food stamps), and our topic of today, the Conservation title.

Remember in my short history of the Farm Bill, that the combination of the Dust Bowl and the Depression exacerbated the problems of farm economics and ecology. The types of crop production taking place prioritized maximizing productivity, aggressively mishandling the land. This in turn exacerbated price and supply issues by generating more production, driving down prices further.  Farmers more aggressively turned their land because the economics demanded it, spiraling the situation out of control [1]. The Depression amplified this effect, setting the stage for the Dust Bowl [2]. So when the first drafts of Farm Bill legislation were written up, there was both economic as well as ecological considerations. Like many of the New Deal laws, there were many incarnations struck down before the passage of the Soil Conservation & Domestic Allotment Act of 1936, the first agricultural conservation law in the books.

Noting that a nation that didn’t protect its soil didn’t protect itself, Franklin Delano Roosevelt pointed out the three things that the government had a vested public interest in regulating with concerns to conservation practices:

“The new law has three major objectives which are inseparably and of necessity linked with the national welfare. The first of these aims is conservation of the soil itself through wise and proper land use. The second purpose is the reestablishment and maintenance of farm income at fair levels so that the great gains made by agriculture in the past three years can be preserved and national recovery can continue. The third major objective is the protection of consumers by assuring adequate supplies of food and fibre now and in the future.”

Simply put, through conservation practices, the government was (at the time) regulating three things: maintaining soil health through regulating agricultural practices; in doing so, regulating the volume of production to levels that stabilized supply, therefore price; and lastly ensuring that such production was done with the long-term view of securing food & fiber needs of the nation.

The Act lasted well into the 1950’s, when conservation programs and interest fell off the wagon for several years. While a couple of ecologically-based proposals rose in the 1970’s, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that a stronger Conservation title was adopted with a series of incentive (read: voluntary) programs that attempted to deal with marginal agricultural lands, sensitive or degraded natural lands, or region-specific water or air pollution issues. This distinction is key: the Conservation program began as an income support program affecting mandatory changes in methods and turned into a voluntary land subsidy program [3].

In the world of today, the modern conservation title can be broken into 3 categories: the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Working Lands/Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the EQIP programs. Broadly speaking, the CRP works to take sensitive or marginal lands out of production in the attempt to revitalize them or protect critical habitat. The CSP incentivizes ecological improvements through changes in growing & planting methods. And the EQIP programs deal with rectifying environmental issues through targeted, regionally-specific programs & skill-building workshops.

In an ideal world, these programs would seem to cover all the bases. Like many things, this is not the case. Due to organization of benefits, these programs are mutually exclusive to each other; provisions in the CRP prevent participants from entering into CSP programs, for example. So you have to choose between land retirement or changing methods. The CSP mandates contract periods that participants must abide to, while CRP has clauses that allow participants to leave voluntarily (meaning when crop prices are high, farmers can simply drop participation in order to plant on marginal land to bring it into acreage). This tends to leave most Conservation title programs underutilized, which leads into the biggest issue, which remains that, due to underutilization, allocations made to Conservation title programs tend to get reappropriated or just stolen from the title, meaning that if there ever is a spike in participation, the programs don’t always have the funding to maximize the utility of the program [4].

These are all factored together with one final issue: the fact that the Conservation title exists in a vacuum. See, agricultural production is exempted from major federal policy like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. On a state to state level, even where federal policy has been extended to cover parts of agricultural production, exemptions have been made. Across the nation, piecemeal adoption of environmental protections and taxpayer incentives means that it is hard to gauge the success of Conservation on the whole, making it — in the eyes of politicians and organizations such as the Farm Bureau — a very tempting target for cuts.

And taxpayers do matter in this discussion, because we all pay double: we pay to subsidize farms that practice ecologically unsound agriculture, and then we turn around and pay the cleanup costs.  In real terms, taxpayers pay for support payments in Farm Bill programs to the tune of $1,500/yr on average. We also pay for any environmental cleanup or health receipts caused by agricultural production, due to the exemptions listed above. If you live in a state where an animal waste lagoon seeps into local water supplies, taxpayers pay for cleanup, and if uninsured, the medical costs overhead. According to Thomas Kostigen, that can add up to an additional $6-800/yr for taxpayers. And therein lies the conundrum — taxpayers not only subsidize agriculture that causes environmental hazards, but also pays for the externalized costs of cleanup and health caused by those practices.

Taken together, these make the Conservation title a difficult place to be. It is absolutely necessary — especially as global warming patterns make agricultural production more susceptible to environmental events, and as ecological degradation of farmlands threaten not only our agricultural lands but also industries downstream — and needs reform (the ways in which we can is topic of a later post). It also has a strong coalition backing it — everyone from The Environmental Working Group to the American Enterprise Institute say the Conservation program is essential, for everything from ecological reasons to maintaining our World Trade Organization requirements [5]. And in more than one place, it can be done while saving taxpayers a head of cash through streamlining and correcting the issues listed above. More than anything though, the Conservation title is the tool to reign in the moral hazards represented by all the various support payment programs in the Farm Bill. As the Des Moines Register noted:

If American taxpayers are going to subsidize farmers, the least they should expect in return is that farmers will be required to practice sensible land use so waters are not fouled and soil is preserved for future generations.

Amen to that.

[1] This is a trend that still occurs today — production agriculture in many industries, specifically corn, soy, and dairy, routinely push for greater production on an individual basis, though collectively this has the impact of reducing prices across the board. And in the move to put more land into cultivation, conservation is often ignored in exchange for intensification of planting. But more on that below.

[2] While the drought years would still have occurred, had better growing practices been in place, the effect may not have been so severe.

[3] As with the other Farm Bill programs, the Act was a form of income support for farmers — allowing them to continue working their land despite perhaps growing less or in some cases not growing at all. The added benefits of soil conservation and price stabilization were value-added and strategic benefits, but the primary goal of all Farm Bill programs in the 1930’s was income support to keep farmers on land. I know I belabor this point, but it’s key to remember it.

[4] And a bit of clarifying language here: when bills are sent from committees to the floor of Congress, they are given allocations — how much money the program should receive ideally. This tends to be the number blasted on front pages or toted by politicians in stump speeches. The reality of how much money a program gets comes from appropriations, usually through the Appropriation Committees, which can make deductions and cull spare moneys from current budget streams unless actively lobbied to do otherwise. This is the key to many government programs — you can pass their creation in both houses of Congress, but if you don’t like them, you can always not fund them, or reduce their funding over time as to make them unworkable or autistic.

[5] Let’s not even go there. Basically, conservation programs are, under WTO rules, an acceptable form of subsidy to farm production.


About The Farm Bill Almanac

Farm Bill Almanac is an blog dedicated to breaking down the wonkishness and complexity of the US Farm Bill, and other delicious agricultural & food related regulations. Succinct, yet brilliant, FBA likes long walks on the beach, natural wines, and hiking.
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