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 and health.
You can view recent postings on the
SANET-MG list-serve– including the previous thread
entries on farm subsidies in rich and poor nations –
September 30, 2003: The discussion about subsidies
has made me think of the effect they had on our farm back when we
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 at all.
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 the government.
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
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 today.
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 wisely.
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.