I should have seen this coming.
When the current issue of Farm Futures came out with my suggestions for turning direct payments into more consumer-friendly eco, or sustainability payments, more than a few readers responded. This is what I get for making suggestions that may be, in hindsight, a bit naïve. That's why it's good to have readers who know what's going on and can set me straight.
One of those calls came from Jim Brown, a no-tiller near Oto, Iowa. This region of northwestern Iowa is called Loess Hills, with slopes averaging 8 or 9%. Brown is a serious conservationist, growingbuffer strips, cover crops and cropping with no-till before retiring a few years ago. In the past 20 years those conservation practices have helped him move soil organic matter from 2 to 3.5%.
In that editorial I had suggested that the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) might be the logical way to move direct payments into more consumer-friendly 'green' payments. Consumers want farmers to be more sustainable. What could be more sustainable than investing in ways to keep soil in place for the long-term?
But Brown says CSP simply isn't the right tool for the future because the folks who set it up 11 years ago got caught up in a politically correct trap, and wouldn't allow CSP payments to go to landowners – only farmer operators and tenants.
"The fact is, the landowner is often the one who is investing in the long term conservation needs of the land. If a fence is built on a farm, the landowner pays. If a terrace is put in, the owner pays. Why not CSP? Payments should go to the owner of that land because conservation is a long-term investment in the land."
Unfortunately, Brown adds, "there's a lot of landowners out there who don’t give a damn about conservation. They just want a check."
Brown wasn't through. He also believes National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) is not so much concerned about soil erosion as it is making sure staff gets their paychecks. And how do you justify those paychecks? Laying out terraces. "They were the last person at the table to get behind no-till," says Brown. "NRCS is slow to adopt and we may not have the same goals.
Getting paid…for what?
Another reader complained about the following statement I made in that editorial: "If you're tired of getting paid to do nothing, figure out how to get paid for doing something taxpayers want."
Farrell Bradshaw, of Amarillo, TX, felt that was out of line. "It seems even the editor of Farm Futures does not understand that the basic idea is to help provide food and clothing for the factory worker and city people at a cheaper price."
Okay, I used to believe that. And I still do to some extent. The more important reason for subsidies is the safety net, to provide a buffer from the risks of volatile prices and weather.
But the point is, taxpayers don't get it. And they are the ones voting.
The unfortunate history here is that direct payments - those payments you get for 'doing nothing' - came about so that farm subsidies would be less trade distorting in the World Trade Organization. The theory was, let's convert payments that may have been tied to market fluctuations into simple payments not tied to anything.
Sure enough, today we now have an urban, taxpaying audience who has no idea why they should give farmers this money when it appears to have no tie to actual production.
And, you'd be hard pressed to convince anyone in this politicized atmosphere that direct payments are keeping food prices down even as food prices go up and up.
No, our best for future government assistance is to focus on a solid, revenue or crop insurance safety net, and work toward some kind of program that reconnects consumers with the food producers of this country. Let's look seriously at the European model, where government interests are convincing taxpayers that farm programs are good for all citizens, through more sustainable farm methods and rural economy incentives...and the payments go to the farmers who carry out those programs and initiatives.
In that scenario, everybody's on the same page. We're nowhere close to that here.