Ag Conservation’s Unfair Burden

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At a time when the budget mantra “we must all share in the pain” is being repeated ad nauseam, it doesn’t take much searching to find some hypocritical exceptions. Take, for example, the Congressional proposal to cut $60 billion from the federal budget: farm conservation programs are practically eviscerated, while commodity crop subsidies remain untouched. As a recent article in Minnesota Conservation Volunteer points out, supporting initiatives such as the Conservation Stewardship Program isn’t just good policy, it’s a key strategy for getting the public involved in working lands conservation.

The U.S. House budget proposal cuts $5.2 billion, or 22 percent, from the combined USDA and Food ad Drug Administration budgets. Compare that to the comparatively measly 6 percent cut the government overall would receive. The House also proposes deep cuts to mandatory conservation and renewable energy funding provided by the 2008 Farm Bill. A combined $500 million would be cut under the House bill from the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wetland Reserve Program and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program. With those cuts included, the total hit to agriculture amounts to $5.7 billion, or 24.5 percent.

The House bill would eliminate funding completely for a number of small programs of great importance to sustainable, organic, beginning and minority farmers. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA), Organic Transitions Research Program, Office of Advocacy and Outreach (it coordinates policy and outreach to beginning, women and minority farmers), and the Office of Tribal Relations program would all be terminated. These are programs that with minimal resources are charged with serving the most chronically under-served segments of agriculture.

What does this all mean? Well, let’s consider just one initiative: the Conservation Stewardship Program. CSP, which rewards farmers for providing environmental benefits on working land, offers a glimmer of hope in a federal ag program that otherwise focuses most of its resources on producing monocultures of commodity crops like corn. This budget would not only seriously hobble the future use of CSP, but it could actually make many farmers regret having signed their current five-year contracts. There is a real chance that if this budget proposal goes into effect the USDA will be forced to default on existing CSP contracts.

At the least, when, if ever, farmers get paid for putting in such environmentally-friendly measures as managed rotational grazing, resource conserving crop rotations and wildlife habitat will become one big question mark. Even slight alterations to a farming enterprise to make it more environmentally friendly can bring major economic risks. One diversified farmer told me recently that he has lost around 50 percent of his USDA commodity payments because his family is raising more pasture and soil-friendly small grains, and less corn and soybeans.

Some of that financial loss can be made up for by selling through organic and local foods markets that reward farmers for utilizing sustainable methods. But the vast majority of farmers currently don’t have access to market-based conservation incentives. The public, through its support of federal programs like CSP, can help fill that working lands conservation gap.

In a state like Minnesota, undermining a major tool for making conservation farming less risky has big implications for clean water and good quality wildlife habitat in rural areas. Since the 2008 Farm Bill strengthened and revamped CSP, the Gopher State has become a national leader in utilizing the program. During the 2010 sign-up alone, farmers here qualified for more than 1,500 contracts, covering more than 900,000 acres of farmland.

Passing a budget that goes back on promises made to stewardship-minded farmers isn’t just short-sighted, it’s somewhat dishonest.

That’s especially true when one considers this: the nation’s two largest government agricultural spending items—commodity and crop insurance subsidies—are untouched by the budget axe. Keeping intact programs, that, for example, provide direct payments to farmers for raising corn is inexcusable, especially at a time when crops prices are again on track to break records.

There is plenty of other budget pork to be trimmed. For example, the Government Accountability Office released a report his week that concluded the 45 cents per gallon blender’s credit for ethanol is “largely unneeded today to ensure demand for domestic ethanol production.” This year alone, over $5 billion in tax money will be paid to ethanol blenders. By the way, that same GAO report concluded that significant savings could also be attained by targeting some of the $5 billion spent annually on Farm Bill commodity program direct payments.

At first blush, it would appear that conservation farming is being unfairly targeted by the House’s budget proposal. Maybe that’s no surprise, considering the backlash against sustainable ag in general that seems to be developing among some government and business elites.

A letter sent to the Senate Monday by 154 groups, including the Land Stewardship Project, cuts to the chase: “Slating programs of such small means for termination suggests a motive that has little to do with deficit reduction.”

It’s the Senate’s turn to consider this grossly unbalanced budget proposal. Check out this National Sustainable Ag Coalition action alert on how we can send a message to D.C. that clean water and quality wildlife habitat on working farms are a public good—and therefore worthy of public support.

One Response to “Ag Conservation’s Unfair Burden”

  1. Tim Gieseke

    I will agree that subsidies and the subsequent cuts to them are not always “fair”, but I don’t think the CSP is providing a means for subsidies to be fair. The CSP was a glimmer of hope when it emerged 7 years ago, but it has become another disconnected congressional allocation. As a farm policy analyst, I thought it could not cover the ground it needed to, as a local conservation district staff I thought it was a paperwork mess, as a farmer I realized that it does not provide a market signal for the highest level of conservation, but for a medium level of conservation and a promise that I will do more, as a agribusinessman I realized that the CSP did not consider the tremendous amount of support emerging the private sector to reward ecoservices. The CSP is a symptom a few organizations trying to get a cut of the policy pie using the same tactics and philosophies as those they are fighting against. Resource management progress will not by spinning your wheels on that bandwagon. It is time to take stock of what has happened in the sustainability movement in the last ten years. It is a whole lot bigger than the conservation policy pie.