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Do conservation programs shortchange farmers?

CLARKSDALE, Miss. -- Farm policy and farm program payments have, in recent years, been increasingly linked to conservation/environmental requirements. Some see this as great. Others think it less so. The following are excerpts from an e-mail dialogue that has been circulating between a Mid-South agribusinessman and a board member of a state wildlife federation.

The Agribusinessman

I am deeply troubled at the dollars that this farm bill has taken out of our basic farm producers' pockets — and few outside our industry care. The farm economy is terrible, yet we have diverted payments that were designed to keep an industry viable and given those dollars to marginal landowners to return their acres to quail and rabbits.

U.S. production agriculture has provided the best and cheapest food in the world… but the farmer continues to work very cheaply — taking a big risk for very little return.

This week, my daughter shared with me her concern for a friend and her husband, both college grads, who are barely existing on their farming operation. He is one of the best, if not the best, young farmers we have in the area. He works very hard. People like him are the future of production agriculture, yet they are not making enough to enjoy a good quality of life.

Let's get things into perspective. What is really important? Is it to keep viable the best food production industry the world has ever known? Or is it to have more quail and rabbits?

As landowners, my father and I attended a meeting to learn what we could do under the conservation program to help recover some of the farm subsidy dollars we've lost. We found we don't fit the program criteria because we've invested top dollars in highly productive farm land. So, we're further penalized for the risks we've taken to support the farming industry. Even with the poor returns from the stock market the past three years, our dollars would have given a better return there than investing in farm land.

I wish the wildlife interests could appreciate the finer things of life we farmers have given them; that they would recognize the many benefits they enjoy as a result of our hard work and efforts; and that they would cooperate with us instead of working against us, as they did in this current farm bill.

The Wildlife Federation Board Member

In talking with groups that are working on the conservation side of the farm bill, I've come to understand that they realized long ago that having strings on federal subsidies was a far more effective way to achieve their goals than trying to force or regulate the changes. In short, a carrot vs. a stick.

As time has gone on, the average taxpayer has been asking why we are spending so many tax dollars on production agriculture. Obviously, the response is: to both maintain the ability to feed ourselves while supplying cheap food.

What I hear from Washington is that the taxpayers are saying that they no longer get cheap food because what they're not paying at the checkout counter they're paying via the Internal Revenue Service. That's coupled with the fact that the reason given for low prices (therefore, the need for higher production subsidies) is there's too much farm production in the system. Our farmers are over-producing.

While the conservation groups may be taking advantage of a basic economic shift that is perceptually disadvantageous to the farmer, the bottom line is that the American public/taxpayer is saying: "Let's have a fix to the problem; let's quit putting Band-Aids on it." Taking land out of production is a fix.

Obviously, the concern will be: What if we take this land out and cannot put it back if we need it? (Swampbuster, Sodbuster) What do we do with all the people who get out of farming if we later need them?

The perception is that (a) policy can change, depending on the needs of mankind (and right now, we don't need the size agricultural "factory" that we have). In the future, if we need more production, can we change the rules and put land back into production? I know there are those I deal with who would strongly say "no," but if the needs of the nation were such that it was good public policy, I suspect it would become law.

And (b) the perception is that we can train farmers in the future as we need them. A recent example is in the technology sector.

With the (a) scenario, something comes to mind that agriculture seems to either miss or take for granted: In any business endeavor involving inventory or product, if the demand is high, you produce to meet that demand. Likewise, when demand is lower, either because supply is high or competition is great, production needs to be curtailed — or prices fall below the cost of production. Any business will tell you that the rule is that kind of situation is to cut back to a level where you can sell at a profit.

Those outside of agriculture, especially those taxpayers/voters who lost jobs because of layoffs (i.e., the North American Free Trade Agreement), have no hesitation in being critical of agriculture when — given the same situation of offshore competition — farming says, "Prop us up." Especially when the farmer does it driving a $30,000-plus pickup or SUV.

That constituency, along with the hard-core "green" constituency, has said that if agriculture will not control itself, government policy should. And they are lobbying to make that happen.

Which brings me to my point: Would not agriculture do the same? When it saw the opportunity, would it not lobby for a provision in the farm bill or other laws/regulations favorable to agriculture? I believe what we're experiencing in the farm bill today is not so much a function of an active conservation community, but of poor farm policy in the past. For goodness' sake, farmers don't even like past and current production agriculture policy (i.e., Freedom to Farm).

I will say this: I have yet to meet anyone in the conservation or environmental community who doesn't understand and appreciate what the American farmer does. They understand cheap food and national security. But they cannot understand paying for inefficiency. From my perspective, that's why the conservation programs get so much attention: The taxpayer is saying, "Solve the problem; quit propping it up."

I hope we can keep this dialogue going, because I do value and appreciate your thoughts. I don't intend to offend or cause affront in anything I say; I simply hear the arguments, and want to see good policy develop.

e-mail: [email protected]

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