Our Perverse Farm Plan

In farm country, Christmas comes about every five years.

The next visit of Santa Claus — or in this case, Uncle Sam — is due in 2007. The wish list of American agribusiness giants and their vassals at the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the same as always: many billions of federal dollars propping up an unnatural, anti-competitive, security-undermining, environment-destroying system that gluts the world with cheap grain and pig manure.

And any warm feeling taxpayers might get for thinking their money goes to support the traditional family farm springs from about as much reality as flying reindeer.

After 52 public forums from Florida to Alaska, many presided over personally by Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, and more than 4,000 public comments, the USDA clings to its willful misreading of the situation, promoting policies that endanger the planet and destroy farmsteads from Nebraska to Niger.

Some hold out hope that Congress, after decades of agreeing that the solution to every farm problem is larger production subsidies, might take another course. The ascension of the Democrats, specifically the fact that conservation-friendly Tom Harkin of Iowa will be chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, provides some encouragement.

But the USDA’s own summary of the issues facing American agriculture — “Strengthening the Foundation for Future Growth in U.S. Agriculture” — still views farming as an industrial process needing to ramp up production and increase exports.

It’s a sad missive that refers to the dependency of livestock and vegetable producers on straightjacketing production contracts with giant processors as “opportunities,” and calls the need for farm families to balance their budgets with off-farm jobs a “choice.”

It’s a business plan that assumes poor nations whose agricultural base is destroyed by America’s market-glutting production will magically start having the kind of disposable income necessary to buy our grain and meat. Our government’s refusal to deviate from this view was the key reason why the last round of World Trade Organization talks, once seen as a chance to bring poor nations into the fold, collapsed in July.

It’s a blueprint for yet another round of taxpayer subsidies for the so-called “program crops” — generally wheat, corn, rice, soybeans and cotton — that push farmers to max out their production using all the fertilizer and pesticides they can afford.

The government dropped nearly $144 billion on farm subsidies between 1995 and 2004, according to calculations by the Environmental Working Group. The bulk of that money went to an ever-shrinking number of giant companies and cooperatives that continue to soak up both the taxpayers’ money and their neighbors’ land.

The resulting cut-rate price of corn further encourages feedlot fattening of cattle, hogs and poultry rather than the more natural grazing. The nitrogen-heavy runoff from those massive feeding operations, combined with all the fertilizer that flows from wheat and corn fields in the Plains and upper Midwest, endangers municipal water supplies and once-teeming sealife downstream in the Gulf of Mexico.

Soil conservation is always a part of farm legislation, but a small part. In Kansas, for example, federal farm payments over the decade ending in 2004 totaled $6.2 billion for production subsidies and $1 billion for conservation. When budget hawks start looking for savings, it is the conservation plans, not the subsidies, that are on the chopping block.

True conservation farming, where land is lovingly husbanded everywhere, not hyper-farmed here and left fallow there, is the key to sustainable, affordable food production. And we can have it for a fraction of what we now spend on production subsidies.

If we tell Congress that is what we want.

GEORGE PYLE, an editorial writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, is author of “Raising Less Corn, More Hell: The Case for the Independent Farmer and Against Industrial Food.” He wrote this comment for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.



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