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Reward farmers for conservation

by Charlie Melander
Prairie Writers Circle

(Thursday, June 17, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Farmers tend to personalize comments made about farming. If you suggest to Farmer Jones that he might be using too much fertilizer, he will respond: “What did you say about my sister?”

I am not criticizing individual farmers, who are caught in a system and doing what they believe necessary to succeed. But farming has been the biggest cause of erosion, wildlife habitat loss and water pollution by fertilizers and pesticides in this country, and mending it with conservation will require remaking attitudes among the public, on the farm and in government.

We can do this, and without more tax dollars.

Here is an example to follow. Nearly hidden among federal farm programs is a conservation tool called the narrow grass strip. In fields where you would expect earth terraces sculpted with heavy equipment like massive speed bumps to slow runoff and erosion, substitute grass strips 30 to 60 feet wide. Follow the land’s contour with alternating bands of crop and grass, contrasting color and texture. Wildlife love it. I like to boast that every raindrop that falls on these fields of mine is filtered at least once by a grass strip before it can leave the farm. This is a cropping system good for the eye and the soul.

The farsighted programs for this and other conservation are examples of American government at its best.

But they are undermined by the major, multibillion-dollar farm subsidy programs. These narrow-mindedly tie payments to production. Additional bushels equal additional subsidy dollars.

At first glance this appears sensible. But what naturally follows is destructive. Farmer Jones plays crop lottery: Double up on fertilizer and pesticide, pray for extra rain, and wait to hit the crop jackpot covered with subsidy dollars. Bulldoze the tree line on the south 80. New acres coming into production equal more potential bushels, which equal more subsidy dollars. Sink an irrigation well. More potential bushels equal more subsidy dollars.

What does the taxpayer get for those billions of subsidy dollars? Artificially cheap supermarket food, falling water tables, fewer farms, synthetic chemicals in the drinking glass, and nitrogen fertilizer runoff that flows downstream from all over the Midwest, feeding a process that sucks oxygen and life from the Gulf of Mexico.

Production is something we don’t have to worry about. Farmer Jones is going to do his damnedest for that anyway. But our subsidy system encourages him to go overboard. This frenzied maximum input, maximum production is insanity.

More of these crop dollars chasing crop production must be used instead to stimulate resource conservation.

We know what the average farmer spends on inputs. We could have a simple program. Government could target these inputs and reward conservation based on consumption standards.

Imagine this: Melander, your itemized Internal Revenue Service statement shows that you used $2 an acre less fuel than our consumption standard. That’s important. We’re going to write you a check for $2 multiplied by your crop acres. Your fertilizer and pesticide costs were $12 an acre less than our consumption standard. Reducing these has become so critical to health, we’re going to award you $25 an acre.

It makes more sense to put subsidy dollars on this side of the road than on the other side.

To do so would radically alter the thinking of everyone in agriculture. It would excite creativity on the farm and do more to protect land and water than pages and pages of regulation and red tape. With American ingenuity running wild in a new direction, there would be an explosion in responsible farm strategies.

There are no stand-alone solutions to complex environmental problems. How we till the soil, how we plant our crops, and how we use grass strips and numerous other concepts are parts of the puzzle. When put together, they can be a powerful force in maintaining the beauty and productivity of this great land.


Charlie Melander farms near Salina , Kan. , home of the Land Institute. This essay for the institute’s Prairie Writers Circle was adapted from the organization’s magazine, the Land Report.