Let's stop protecting ag's bad actors

by ‎10-23-2012 04:34 PM - edited ‎10-24-2012 10:15 AM



Word from Washington today was that Congress is going to fail to link conservation compliance to federally subsidized crop insurance. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Des Moines Register that a mandatory compliance proposal would be dropped in favor of voluntary programs.
A tour of the countryside this crop season leads me to argue that such a change is a big mistake. In several trips to western Iowa and Nebraska, I saw horrific signs of land abuse. Soil erosion early last spring took the form of unprecedented deep gullies and obvious runoff into creeks and rivers. The drought set these abuses in stone, in the form of poor crops spread across skeletal soils.
Pasture and timber newly converted to row crops fared the worst. Some of the fields even appeared too steep, totally unsafe, for modern farm equipment to operate.
Local sources told me of cases where farmers were basically flipping land--buying pasture, converting it to row crops with a bit of bulldozing, then selling it for a fat premium.
Something is just not working here. In effect, agriculture is supporting its bad actors. No one likes regulation, but all of agriculture is on stage for the abuses of a relative few. 
According to Secretary Vilsack, ag leaders on the hill are opposing compliance and pushing a voluntary, incentive-based approach. Good to have conservation funding, but history has proved that carrots don’t work without a stick.
Over the 70 plus years since the Dust Bowl, the biggest conservation gains came after the 1985 farm bill, when conservation compliance was implemented, along with the Sodbuster law and the CRP.  When compliance was enforced with some vigor in the mid-1990s, soil erosion on cropland was cut by about 40 percent, one conservation expert, Max Schnepf, told me.  As enforcement of the regulation lessened later on, soil erosion rates increased again in many parts of the country, he pointed out.
Why won’t voluntary programs alone work? “There isn’t enough money to encourage action by enough farmers on a scale that will make a difference, and the bad actors in the farm community never have and never will chose to participate voluntarily, even with substantial financial incentives,” Schnepf said. 
Farmers themselves seem to be up in the air on the issue. An Agriculture.com poll this summer showed the question of a conservation-crop insurance link to be a toss-up—48% opposed, 41% in favor, 11% uncertain.
One Nebraska farmer reflected the conflicted feelings. He wrote in the Agriculture.com Farm Business Forum: “That's a tough one. On the one hand, I don't know if I like the idea of one more set of paperwork, and more proof of compliance every year, but on the other hand I have seen firsthand newly broken or first-time planted fields that are a total disaster, which never should have been planted to (mostly) corn, simply because they can get it insured cheap and have a guaranteed profit off those acres."

If I can believe my eyes on what’s happening out on the land these days, the compliance-crop insurance link may be the one tool the farm community has right now to keep the bad actors from representing us all. The voluntary approach has yet to prove itself.

on ‎10-23-2012 08:53 PM

I don't like a mandatory conservation program.  If the problem is that crop insurance promotes use of marginal land, then let us stop or modify the use of crop insurance.  The first step could be dropping subsidies.  Another step might be to tie crop insurance charges to land erosion probabilities.

This year, I did not enroll my farm in the farm program or take any money.  

if there is a link between crop insurance and compliance, I wll probably not elect to use crop insurance.

After all, this year is pretty bad and my crops are going to be right at the level where I probably won't get a payment.  If that is the case, it reduces my incentive to use crop insurance.

I don't know how many old farmers with paid up farms there are, but it may be a signirficant number.

I use buffer strips, waterways, contour planting and other practices to minimize erosion.  There is not much more I could do except seed some of my slopes to grass.  I'm not quite ready to do that.

on ‎10-24-2012 09:20 PM

John  - Jim --- An interesting event in Nebraska about four natural resource districts buying 15000 + acres that will be taken out of production with the irrigation water possibly diverted to river stream flows --- very interesting development that will be highly scrutinized --- 

on ‎10-25-2012 04:01 PM
John, most commodity organiazations oppose linkage. They represent a significant percentage of farmers. So, I only find the poll as an interesting perspective, not as a serious view that represents a majority view. Abuses happen in an imperfect world. I suspect that most of those favoring linkage would still resist most increases in regulation and increases in personal taxes. There is an inconsistancy in their view. Free markets are what we want. We only favor restrictions when it effects others.
on ‎10-31-2012 12:29 PM

I just love to hear people talk about the existential threat of leaving a national debt to our children but then they don't seem to be at all concerned about not leaving them any soil or water, or oil and gas, for that matter.



on ‎11-02-2012 10:07 PM

 ""WELL STATED""  nox - one of many examples-our national and state park systems hear you lod and clear ---

on ‎12-17-2012 12:33 PM

Give me a break!  I dropped out of the farm program years ago, and never regreted it. It is kinda nice being a farmer rather than a peon for the FSA office. I no longer have to worry about 30ft waterways, crooked terraces, and getting permission to tile fields andlay out long rows with bench terraces.   


John, you made my day, we should never have "tree huggers" running agriculture.  I think the conservation concerns can be resolved, if CRP lands could only be owned by those they were to benefit when it was estasblished in the 70's to help farmers, not those who purchased these hill farms for recreation.  


Every day it is a fight, with some agency of government who is trying to infringe upon the property rights of farmers and turn private property into public lands.  This is a great day for farmers.  The Farm Bureau was on the wrong side of the fence on this issue they believed they owed more loyalty to the Serria club, and non farmers than they did to their farmer members. 


Sorry, but . . . you are on the wrong side of this issue of tying Federal Crop to Conservation compliance, you will never know how nice it is to no longer worry about conservation compliance which burdened farmers when taking direct payments.  The direct payments were never enough to provide such infringement upon a farmers private property rights. 


John . . . you made my day.  Pass the popcorn and get me another Corona.