A new report emphasizes that farm subsidies should be a two-way street.
Money for nothing
Imagine if someone were to invest in your business in return for a promise you’ll follow certain standards. Then imagine that the person giving you the money never bothered to check whether you held up your end of the deal.
A stunning new report issued by the Environmental Working Group documents that this is exactly what’s happening with federal farm subsidy programs. Billions of dollars are paid to farmers who are supposed to comply with conservation requirements to reduce erosion, but the government has been incredibly lax on checking whether conservation plans have been adopted for the most highly erodible acres farmed, and Congress has loosened compliance in general. Worse, lawmakers and some large farm interests are conspiring to eliminate conservation compliance from what has rapidly become the biggest commodity program of all. Meanwhile, conservation programs are going to be cut in a new farm bill.
A lot of farmers – something like 62 percent across the country – don’t accept federal subsidies of any sort. Of those who do, 10 percent collect almost 75 percent of the subsidies. Surveys over several decades show that most farmers believe conservation compliance should be part of the deal if you accept payments. It’s what EWG calls a compact between taxpayers and farmers. As Craig Cox says in the report’s preface, “America’s farmers need a safety net, but so do our rich soil and clean water.”
With more pressure than ever on farmers to produce products for food, fuel and other uses as worldwide population burgeons, the need to protect those resources is greater than ever.
The compact EWG refers to began in 1985, when the farm bill required conservation plans for highly erodible acres in return for subsidies. If conservation plans weren’t put in place, farmers were ineligible for future subsidies. As longtime conservation expert Max Schnepf documents in the report, the results were remarkable: an estimated 40 percent reduction in soil erosion on highly erodible acres in 1992-97.
But then things started coming apart. In 1996, Congress exempted federal crop insurance — in which the federal government generously subsidizes farmers who buy insurance for crop losses — from conservation compliance. It also loosened standards and timeframes for compliance. Further, as Schnepf notes, federal agencies failed to check to see whether plans were in place on a majority of those acres. The report points the finger at the Farm Service Agency for that failure, although it doesn’t exempt other agencies that are supposed to provide assistance, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Now lobbyists and lawmakers are working on plans to make federal crop insurance the largest subsidy program of all, while making sure it isn’t attached to conservation compliance.
Hold on, says EWP. The group says now, more than ever, the conservation compact needs to be updated, strengthened and re-energized. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask with billions of dollars pouring out in subsidies at a time when farm income is at an all-time high.
With a new farm bill in the works, Schnepf puts it this way: “Taxpayers struck a bargain in 1985, supported by farmers. That ought to be reaffirmed in the next farm bill.”
How about Wisconsin, where farmers received $6.3 billion in subsidies in 1995-2010? A map of the highly erodible acres in Wisconsin shows most are concentrated in the southwest and northeast, areas where erosion carries soil, nutrients and chemicals into streams and other waterways before dumping into the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan. Interested readers might want to check out Wisconsin farm subsidies on the EWG website. It documents the types of subsidies and where they’re going. And a short column doesn’t do justice to Schepf’s important report. That can be found on the Environmental Working Group website, too.
February 28, 2012
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Bill Berry is a FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in Stevens Point and writes columns for the Capital Times and other publications.