The Conservation Reserve Program's Future
May 16, 2011
One more Peru story: We were with a fishing guide whose folks had a mostly-subsistence farm on the Madre de Dios River. We had lots of questions of him, of course. Finally, he posed some to us.
“Does the government help farmers,” was his general question.
"Well, yes," said one of my friends. "I get direct payments every year on my land."
“So the government pays you to farm in America,” said the young man, his eyebrows raised a bit. "And you," he asked me, “does the government pay you to farm cows?”
"Well, no," I said. But they do pay me not to farm some Conservation Reserve Program acres I bought a few years ago.”
Fishing guides and farm boys ain’t dumb. His eyebrows got higher still.
“So the government pays you to farm,” he said to my friend, “and it pays you not to farm,” he said to me.
He thought about that a while. “That is very interesting,” he said. And then, later still, he asked a question we couldn’t quite answer to his satisfaction: “Why?”
I should be able to answer the guy. I can tell him the history of each part of the farm program. I can explain the justification behind each part. But, now that he asked, my explanation reminds me of an artist trying to get me to understand what he was “saying” with some batch of paint blots holding tissues on a trash can lid. “That is very interesting. But….why?”
What brings that up is the creaking slow efforts to create a 2012 farm bill. It occurs to me I’ve no idea what form it will take. You’ve got the New York Times convinced that our old programs have created a system that makes people fat, wastes energy, fouls the air and water and drives small producers out of the business. You’ve got a Tea Party with an anti-spending soul. And an Administration that likes to be perceived as populist on rural issues.
But, you also have the farm lobby. It’s historically unwise to bet against the New York Yankees or the farm lobby. They can argue, convincingly if you ask me, that drastic reductions in farm support programs would decrease productivity, increase food prices and lead to further erosion of rural communities.
To me the logical outcome has to be a reduction in commitment to food-based ethanol programs for starters. And redirecting some largesse into what the Times considers “good” crops. But logic isn’t always the most logical predictor of political outcomes.
At any rate, one of the skirmishes in this war will be over the Conservation Reserve Program, and there, cattle people have a pretty important stake.
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association joined a host of groups the media dismissed as “agribusiness” to fire a letter on Fort Sumter last week, urging Congress to provide more “flexibility” to holders of Conservation Reserve Programs “so that we have the ability to respond to market signals and grow adequate grain and oilseeds to provide basic foodstuffs to the world consumers.”
Their point is solid. They note that the world’s food demand is outpacing the growth in production and warn that a crop failure could exacerbate the problem. They want land now in CRP to come out of the program and grow more crops.
The idea is for Congress for force USDA to allow unpenalized early outs for folks with existing CRP contracts. Ironically, the letter was mailed two days after Secretary Vilsack sent out a news release bragging on how important CRP has been in government efforts to enhance wildlife habitat.
CRP “allows farmers to help safeguard environmentally sensitive land by planting long-term resource-conserving covers to improve the quality of water, control soil erosion and enhance wildlife habitat. With continuous sign-ups to improve habitat for quail and ducks, and with the commitment of acreage under the SAFE program (State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement) to restore habitat for sage grouse, lesser prairie chickens and other birds, the CRP is improving bird habitat,” said USDA.
So, on the face of it, we have a side with hungry children represented by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and grain buying allies and on the other we have wildlife, represented by USDA, conservationists, environmentalists, environmental extremists, wildlife lovers and hunters. If any important human rights or “feed the hungry” activist groups have come out against CRP, I’m not on their mailing list and they’re not in my Google results.
I’m not sure how fair that fight would be in normal times. But these seem hardly normal times. As one of my favorite D.C. lobbyists said on his Facebook the other day, “Not to shock anyone but Congress won’t pass a budget, immigration reform, financial services reform or a farm bill this year…so go back to your regularly scheduled programming.”
None of his mostly DC-savvy friends expressed shock.
His point is that our government is too divided—and both sides too concerned about “pleasing the base” in the face of crucial 2012 election—to find the sort of common ground it takes to produce important legislation. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how this congress could write a farm bill or what it would look like. If they do, the big issues will revolve around the major crop subsidies and the expense of it. CRP will be dealt with as a bargaining chip and little else.
I’m not sure even how I’d lean on the issue. These feed prices are sure not helping the cattle industry save itself, and at first thought, it doesn’t make much sense for the government to be paying us not to grow more feed. But, then, I remember when CRP was started. I had neighbors who put their land into the program for a fraction of the subsidies the government had been paying them to lose money growing surplus crops. I’m sure that if the government must be mama sow to agriculture, CRP is cheaper than paying farmers to produce crops nobody wants. Much of the land in CRP is sorry stuff. I doubt that even if they cancelled CRP completely we’d see much reaction in corn prices.
For another, speaking from the perspective of a guy in the darkest red part of that U.S. Drought Monitor this year, I kind of like having it in reserve. In past droughts, USDA has let us graze some CRP and that saves cows and range conditions when it happens. I can’t imagine they won’t open it up again this year, given this drought overlaid on the crying need for herd replacement.
All of that said, what NCBA and friends are asking for is “flexibility.” If I had one of the thousands of places that went into CRP because the owner wanted to quit farming and the country committee felt sorry for him and accepted decent land, I’d probably like to take it out, and I think maybe I’d be the best judge of whether that land was worth taking out.
But that’s just what I think. I also think this government is not as much inclined to trust individual judgment on resource utilization as it used to be. I won’t bet on the farm bill. But I believe I will bet against a lot of that “flexibility.” My bet goes that if land is allowed out, it won’t be at the sole discretion of the owner.