For more than 60 years, farmers stopped by their local farm services agency each spring and signed their names to join the farm program. It felt like insurance: If the market prices for certain crops fell below a floor, the government would pay the difference. But security came at a price. The government told producers what and how much to plant. And it paid by the acre, so larger farms got a bigger share of the pot. Now, 20 percent of producers reap 80 percent of the payments.
the late 1970s, it was no secret that farmers cultivated more land
to get bigger payments. The land was releasing silt, chemicals and
animal wastes into watersheds. Farmers were plowing over wetlands,
and busting so much sod that every 20 years saw a mini-dust bowl.
Teaming up with sustainable agriculture advocates,
environmentalists successfully lobbied for a slew of conservation
programs in the 1985 farm bill. Most were voluntary, but the two
most far-reaching programs were linked to subsidy payments: No
water and soil conservation, no subsidy check.
The 1996 farm bill, signed into law last month,
picked up where its predecessor left off, offering farmers the
best-funded package of conservation incentives in
Why, then, is nobody
Because while the new law nudges
farmers to protect the land, the federal government will no longer
cut them off if they don't. Now that environmental protection is
voluntary, some worry that farmers will abandon conservation for
production. And for seven more years, farmers will receive hefty if
diminishing checks based only on production for the last five
years. They can plant as much as they want. Payments will continue
to benefit bigger farms, which means smaller operations may plant
fence row to fence row to keep up.
farmers say the receding role of government will boost their
environmental practice. Grasslands could benefit from the newly won
flexibility in what farmers can plant. In the arid West,
alternating row crops with soil-building forage crops or cattle
ranching makes it harder for weeds, diseases and pests to adapt,
letting farmers use fewer pesticides. But until now, farmers lost
their subsidies on acres where they raised hay or grazed. That was
partly due to the pressure of the livestock lobby, which argued
that the government was paying farmers a second salary.
Farmer Wayne Baker in Portales, N.M., explains
that farmers are "natural conservationists," who will do anything
to save their land.
"The government doesn't know
what to do. The Soil Conservation Service are police agents, not a
help," says Baker. "The farmer'll spend all his money to preserve
the farm. He needs to be allowed to make money."
Organic farmer John Tester in north-central
Montana remains unconvinced. As he sees it, farmers always have
something they want to buy - a new set of drills, a tractor, a
combine. They'll spend the big government checks on equipment
rather than conservation. And his neighbors who plant monocultures
of wheat won't hay or graze when prices are soaring. Then, prices
"When commodity prices fall," says
Tester, "farmers will maximize production. How they do that is by
breaking up marginal land and trying to raise crops on that, or
increasing fertilizer inputs."
For the past
year, the Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, a coalition of over
500 farmer, rural-development and environmental groups, including
the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Audubon
Society, pushed to strengthen Conservation Compliance and
Swampbuster, the two environmental programs that were linked to
government subsidies. They contended that if taxpayers give farmers
up to $4.8 billion over the next seven years, they have a right to
demand that producers don't drain wetlands or erode soil.
Under pressure from the Campaign, the Clinton
administration fought reluctant Republicans for environmental
provisions. Eventually, they gained $2.5 billion for voluntary
conservation programs over seven years, although the act
significantly weakens Conservation Compliance and Swampbuster. "We
knew we were going to lose on commodity programs, so we made
conservation our top priority and fought vigorously for it," says
Jim Peterson, deputy press secretary for the Department of
Agriculture. "We pulled a rabbit out of a hat." They won a package
of conservation programs and incentives that
* A new Fund for Rural America
allocates $300 million over three years for rural development and
research. This money could house migrant farmworkers along the
picking-circuit stretching from Washington to New Mexico, or
support cooperatives that free family farms and ranches from the
big processing industries.
* The Farms for the
Future Program will provide matching funds to regional programs
that help farmers resist encroaching suburban development. However,
only $35 million was allocated per year, a sum Kathleen Kelley of
Meeker, Colo., vice president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union
considers "nothing. I've got a ranch next to me going for $3.5
* The Community Food Security Program
will help bring produce from family farmers directly to poor urban
areas by giving $1 million annually to programs such as the
farmers' markets in Portland, Ore., where small farmers meet urban
consumers face to face.
* The Environmental
Quality Incentives Program combines the government's many
conservation cost-share programs in a "whole-farm approach." A
farmer will be able to sit down with soil conservation experts,
assess the biggest environmental risks on the farm, draw up a plan
to solve them, and get some money for implementation.
* Despite threats to cut it severely, the act
reauthorizes the Conservation Reserve Program, a favorite of
hunters, farmers and environmentalists alike. The program is a
straight trade: On 3.5 million acres that are vulnerable to wind or
water erosion, farmers agree to plant grasses or trees. In return,
the government pays the farmer a per-acre fee plus half of the
restoration costs. According to Kelley, CRP has halted a second
major dust bowl. In Colorado, where one-sixth - almost two million
acres - of the tilled land is in CRP, whole counties depend on CRP
payments for income, and elk and deer herds rely on the idled land
for winter forage. In the Palouse region of eastern Washington,
Idaho and western Montana, CRP has slowed erosion, restored
populations of pheasants, waterfowl, and prairie chickens, and
reduced air pollution to downwind cities like Spokane, Wash.
The campaign celebrates these victories, but
many agree with California grape grower Victor Hanson, who says
that conservation programs are sugar coating on a rotting carcass.
Government payments - whether yesterday's subsidies or today's flat
handouts - support the fabulously wealthy and lax conservation
measures, not the small organic farms that have folded in his
"It is cynical to add noble pieces of
legislation to something amoral," says Hanson. "(Conservation
programs) were put there by Clinton to mute criticism from
Democratic supporters. They are buying liberal support through
Farmers like Hanson and Tester say
true reform would be to stop payments altogether and allocate money
only for environmental programs. "We still have a program that pays
the rich," says Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs in
Walthill, Neb. "If no one has the courage to represent the average
farm or average citizen, we ought to get rid of the damn government
Today, Tester is in a quandary.
Should he go down to the farm services agency and register for his
government check, even though he doesn't believe in
"I've got two things on my mind.
First, the greed. The money is sitting there. All you have to do is
sign your name and the money's yours. That's not quite right. But
on the other hand, all my neighbors are taking it. What the hell am
I trying to prove?"
* Heather Abel,