As pressure mounts to reduce agricultural crop subsidies, Farm Bill conservation programs are increasingly important to the bottom line of many American farms. This trend is expected to continue as Brazil, India and other developing nations insist that free trade deals include an end to American and European crop payments which they rightly claim distort market prices in world agricultural markets.
Most farmers now understand that there is a market for “environmental services” and “conservation” which can provide a significant component of farm income. So it is no surprise that the Conservation Title in each successive Farm Bill has grown relative to commodity payments and other titles. But even as on-farm conservation spending has increased, the promised environmental improvements have for the most part failed to materialize. For example, the 25-year effort to end the decline in Chesapeake Bay water quality and fisheries has failed. While tens of millions of dollars have been pumped into farm conservation in order to end agricultural nutrient pollution, nutrient problems in the Bay have not abated. Scientists and environmentalists are now calling for abandoning the collaborative approach - which relies heavily on Farm Bill and other voluntary conservation programs - in favor of regulation.
The failure of Farm Bill conservation programs to deliver the promised restoration benefit is the result of an erosion in performance standards for these programs with each successive Farm Bill. High Country News was one of the few publications that called attention early on to the weakening of standards for Farm Bill conservation programs during the Clinton Administration.
There are many parallels to the Chesapeake Bay scenario in the West. For example, the twenty-year multi-million dollar state-federal effort to restore Klamath River fisheries recently ended with wild salmon stocks at lower levels than when the program began. The CalFed program -- which promised to restore the Sacramento-San Janquin Delta -- is another spectacular restoration failure. In fact, when the actual condition of the species/resources which were supposed to be restored is considered, it is hard to find successful large-scale collaborative restoration programs in the West. In spite of this clear failure to deliver the restoration they’ve promised, collaborative conservation is still being promoted in the West - including recently and separately by Daniel Kemmis and Chris Wood in the pages of High Country News.
The ranks of those willing to criticize the failure of Farm Bill and other conservation/restoration programs to deliver the promised conservation benefits remain thin. However, criticism of these programs recently surfaced within the farm community itself. The Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment examined five years of payments through the Farm Bill’s EQIP program and found that most of the funding was going to big factory-style livestock operations for projects like manure lagoons which are required in order to meet water quality standards. Diverting conservation and restoration funding to help farms meet regulatory compliance responsibilities is a major reason conservation has not delivered promised benefits.
How long it will take western conservationists to come to the same conclusion remains to be seen. And while a coalition of progressive farm, environmental and restoration interests focused on reforming Farm Bill conservation programs is clearly needed, such a coalition has yet to emerge.
If westerners take too long to realize that conservation programs need to be reformed species like Coho salmon which are at high risk for extinction may not survive. Western conservationists should pay heed to what their Chesapeake colleagues are saying:
"We must act quickly to transition from the voluntary collaborative approach that has failed to a comprehensive regulatory program that addresses the prime sources of nutrient and sediment pollution…..Drastic change is called for."
That “drastic change” must include clear performance standards for Farm Bill conservation programs. Farmers should realize that if they do not deliver conservation benefits when they accept conservation funding that funding will eventually end in a crescendo of scandal and recrimination.