Every five years congress debates and reauthorizes a piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill. More aptly nicknamed the Farm and Food Bill by many food activists, this legislation pays for everything from food stamps, to conservation programs, to agricultural research priorities. Originally authorized during the Dust Bowl, and pushed by Hugh Hammond Bennett– the man who started the Soil Conservation Service (known in its present form is known as the NRCS)- the Farm Bill was enacted to serve two primary purposes. First, to support farms across the country in times of economic depression, so that farmers wouldn’t starve when prices hit bottom and, secondly (and most important to our cause) to mandate that farmers who received government aid enacted simple soil conservation techniques that would prevent the likes of the dust bowl from happening again.
While we as a nation have clung mightily to the concept of supporting farmers in times of need- we have forgotten Bennett’s impetus that saving our soil should be a national priority. Congress has since unlinked the direct payment (commodity-crop subsidy) program from the necessity to conserve the soil- thereby allowing egregious soil mismanagement by farmers who are simultaneously being subsidized by tax payer dollars.
Instead of a hand in glove approach, soil conservation practices have since the mid 80’s been encouraged through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)– which pays farmers to put marginal land out of production, and gives grants to growers to plant hedgerows, wildlife corridors, and beneficiary insect habitat.
This year, everything is set to change. As congress is trying to slim down anything that could be construed as wasteful fat off of the national budget, the direct payment program is on the chopping block- backed by an odd mix of environmentalists and large corn-belt farmers. Good Food movement activists who have, for decades, tried to eliminate the subsidies to the nations largest (and primarily conventional) farms are thrilled the direct payment program looks to be going the way of the Dodo.
However- there’s a back door to this years farm bill that will continue the system of subsidizing large conventional farming operations with an increased reckless abandon in terms of conservation. The farm bill that Senate Agricultural Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow has put forth- axes the direct payment plan in favor of a crop insurance subsidy for farmers called the Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) program. In an open letter from a litany of Food Leaders to congress this week, some of the nation’s leading food and farming advocates came together to daylight the bait and switch technique that will serve the same large conventional farming interests as every other farm bill of the past several decades. They write that the proposed $9 billion-a-year crop insurance program comes with minimal societal obligations. Growers collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance premium subsidies should at least be required to take simple measures to protect wetlands, grassland and soil. Instead, the unlimited subsidies will encourage growers to plow up fragile areas and intensify fencerow-to-fencerow cultivation of environmentally sensitive land, erasing decades of conservation gains.
We agree with them that, It doesn’t have to be this way. Any type of subsidy program- whether direct payment or through the form of the back door Agricultural Risk Coverage program needs to mandate soil conservation practices. We need to keep in mind that we are blessed with great soil in this country- and we need to respect that it is the basis of our very productive agricultural system. The internet news and commentary site Politico reported that There is strong pressure…for Congress to reverse a 1996 law and again require farmers to comply with soil conservation rules or lose the premium subsidies so important to insuring their crop revenues. Stabenow said she has added “sod busting” protections for native prairie grasslands but would oppose any amendment to establish a broader link between crop insurance assistance and the soil conservation rules.
This is an appeal to Ms Stabenow and the rest of congress. Heed Hugh Hammond Bennett’s almost century old warning that “Too many people have lost sight of the fact that productive soil is essential to the production of food” and include stringent soil conservation practices in the design of the ARC program. We disagree with the shift from one type of subsidies to another- but if you are to follow through with subsidizing the crop insurance of famers- please remember the soil!
– Jessy Beckett