The first victim of ag subsidies is crop diversity …

… and the second victim is the soil. Klaas Martens reflects on all the consequences of a corn subsidy economy.

By Klaas Martens

Editor’s NOTE

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 – 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 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 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 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.