On September 29, the ever active
Martens of Penn Yan, New York joined in a discussion
on SANET, the long-standing sustainable ag list
serve. Klaas Martens reflected insightfully on
his personal experience with US acreage-based
subsidies which incentivize profit-minded farmers
to grow more corn and not much else, causing soil
fertility loss and ever increasing dependence
on chemical inputs. We decided to share his comments
with you, below. Also check
out Mary-Howell Martens’ lyrical and thoughtful
piece about the complexities of soil life
You can view recent postings
on the SANET-MG list-serve– including the
previous thread entries on farm subsidies in rich
and poor nations – at:
September 30, 2003: The discussion about subsidies
has made me think of the effect they had on our farm back when
we farmed 'conventionally'.
Our cropping plans were based largely on the subsidy structure.
If we planted less corn than our base, we would lose some
corn base in the future. If, in years when we were allowed
to plant more corn than our base, we did so, it usually raised
our corn base acreage in the future. Corn base was very important
because it gave us the highest subsidy payments. Wheat base
was second in importance and other bases weren't worth much
If a farmer was good at figuring out the program, they could
maximize their payments. If not, the office staff did it for
us. The end result was the same. Everybody planted all the
corn that they could every year. If the program require us
to idle some acres, it paid to go rent some cheap land and
idle those acres. It often made "good sense" to
plant corn on land that needed so many inputs that it could
not make a profit. The payments were too high to pass up.
There were years when all of our net farm income came from
We figured rental value of land using the amount of corn
base it had and even purchase price of farms was calculated
to consider how much subsidy payment they could generate.
Only 'fools' grew oats, barley, hay, pasture, rye, or grass
seed on land that could generate corn payments. (Keep in mind,
that this program was designed to reduce corn surpluses.)
The first victim of this kind of farming was our crop diversity.
Crops that didn't generate subsidy payments couldn't make
a profit and certainly couldn't compete for land with corn.
After a few years of this, our soil health began to decline.
Rather than growing our nitrogen, we had to buy it. We needed
to buy a rootworm insecticide, then stronger seed treatments,
then 2 way and 3 way herbicide combinations, then more fertilizer......
Low prices made American farms get bigger. Small tightly
held land holdings farmed by families that have owned them
for generations do not voluntarily sell out. Not unless forced
out of business by bankruptcy or if the next generation can't
make a decent living there anymore.
The cost of the inputs used on farms today has gone completely
out of control and the 'need' for those inputs is tied to
the large scale monoculture farming that dominates agriculture
Farms with diverse crops in a good rotation don't need to
squander their income on insecticides, herbicides, nitrogen
fertilizers, bt or roundup crops.
If we can restore good markets for the non-subsidized crops,
rather than chasing the export market with a few cheap monoculture
crops, small farmers can survive and prosper.
Can you see who prospers from land concentration and monoculture
cropping? Subsidies have been designed to encourage that type
of farming. They could be redesigned to bring back diversity
if the world had enlightened leaders who could resist the
influences of special interests and actually serve their people
Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens are long-honored members
of the SANET-MG list, and post significant information to
the list when they are not organic farming with their family
near Penn Yan, NY, building sustainable community with the
region’s farming families or writing their column for
The New Farm under the heading Letter
from New York.