Letter from the Editor

Monday, June 5, 2006

What have we done to farming?

Everyone knows by now that factory farming, giant confinement operations, absentee landowners, rising age and falling number of growers, an almost complete lack of crop diversity and a dependence on subsidies has changed rural Iowa in a dramatic way.

The assumption is that it had to happen. A nasty byproduct of progress. Economy of scale and all that.

Loni Kemp, a conservation policy analyst, makes a case in the spring issue of "Iowa Natural Heritage" that our own well-meaning government brought all this about - mostly by accident.

Seventy years ago, the government started to offer subsidies for a few select crops, hoping to soften the normal weather-related risks of farming. Farmers, knowing a good thing, converted to the subsidized crops and others started to disappear.

Over the years, unintended consequences included overproduction, artificially low market prices for the targeted crops, over-payment to megafarms and loss of diversity in farm operations, U.S. food supplies and the landscape. Can we look around us and really argue with her?

At the same time, Kemp says, the system encouraged soil erosion and overuse of chemicals resulting in polluted bodies of water.

In essence, she says, what the government has done intending to help family farmers has all but exterminated them.

And now, after years of the U.S. howling to break down unfair trade policies for other countries, the United States is being successfully challenged by the World Trade Organization over trade-distorting crop subsidies of our own.

There is an option to subsidies that can also improve the environment, Kemp says - the three-year-old Conservation Security Program.

Already, 1,973 contracts have been signed in Iowa for the program, but it could be much better if the President and Congress catch on and provide full funding and eliminate bureaucracy in the program, Kemp says.

She proposes that the program be opened to every farmer, allowing a farmer to make a basic living - up to $45,000 per farm per year - for taking responsible care of the environment on their land. The idea of "Green Payments" is not new, but the concept that making environmentalism into a farm product is.

Along with a vastly improved crop insurance system, such a payment to count on for Iowa growers could do the same job in cushioning the risk of a poor growing season of swings in commodity prices, she says. And it would be a trade-neutral system that won't cost growers overseas markets.

I'm not so sure that subsidies can be abandoned, at least not suddenly, without causing problems. But in the writing of the 2007 Farm Bill, there is a chance to try something a little different than what we have done for seventy years.

What we have tried to do for farming, in a very real sense, it seems, is what we have done to farming.

I'm no expert, and I can't say whether or not Green Payments would or would not offset any of the problems facing the farm industry today.

But I do think they may improve the environment and help to provide habitat and clean water, and to me, that's enough reason to look in this direction.

Iowa-born conservationist Aldo Leopold said it rather well:

"We are embarked on two large-scale experiments. One is premised on the notion that conservation is something a nation buys. The other is premised on the notion that conservation is something a nation learns."