The tale of two farm programs

The Conservation Security Act and farm subsidies were both mandated by Congress to be uncapped open-enrollment programs -- so why are they getting such totally different treatment from the USDA?

Posted March 23, 2004

Editor’s Note: Francis Thicke -- with Susan, his wife and business partner -- operates Radiance Dairy near Fairfield, Iowa. They use the only on-farm dairy processing facility in Iowa to create yogurt, cheese and bottled milk from their 65-head Jersey herd. Marketing is done locally to an intensely loyal following of customers. The rotational-grazing based farm is managed organically to improve soil life as well as plant and livestock diversity.

Francis Thicke presented these comments at the USDA Listening Session in Des Moines, Iowa on February 11, 2004.

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My Name is Francis Thicke. I am an organic dairy farmer from Fairfield, Iowa.

Many people today have detailed a variety of specific problems with the rule proposed by USDA for implementation of the Conservation Security Act (CSP). I would like to spend my allotted time talking about the process of how we got to this point, and look at the bigger picture of how this fits into USDA policy.

I have worked for USDA in Washington, D.C. in the past, and have helped write rules for USDA conservation programs. When I look at the proposed rules for CSP I don’t recognize the spirit of the conservation-minded folks at the Natural Resources Conservation Service. What I see is the shadow of USDA’s big brother: the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

There is no doubt in my mind that OMB is responsible for the cap on the budget for CSP. The budget cap is the one big domino that knocked down all the other dominos that have collectively imploded CSP: targeted watersheds, enrollment categories, miniscule payments for conservation practices, and all the other items in the proposed rule that serve to limit farmer participation in CSP.

Unfortunately, OMB operates in the shadows of government and would never send a representative to a listening session like today’s. Since we have no OMB budget examiner here today to voice our concerns to, we will have to work extra hard to convince you, the USDA panel, to take our message back to OMB so we can get this budget cap lifted and the rule revised accordingly.

How is it that this administration thinks it has the authority to change the law? Congress has specifically mandated that CSP is an uncapped, open-enrollment program. A quick review of junior-high-school civics tells us that there are three branches of government. The Congressional branch makes the law and the Executive branch enforces the law. By arbitrarily placing a budget cap on CSP, USDA is violating the letter of the law and attempting to rewrite the 2002 Farm Bill. This administration may be on course for an appointment with the third branch of government: the federal court system.

It is interesting to note that the USDA crop-subsidy program is also an open-enrollment program—open to any qualified farmer who signs up. Yet USDA has not proposed a budget cap on crop subsidies. Rather, USDA estimates that crop subsidies will cost $12.6 billion next year--but it has budgeted only 1.6% of that amount for CSP.

What do we get in return for investment in crop subsidies instead of conservation security? Crop subsidies in Iowa are targeted to monoculture production of erosive row crops, and have served to exacerbate our resource problems. Poor nutrient management on subsidized crops has brought Des Moines the dubious distinction of needing the largest nitrate-removal equipment in the world to remove fertilizer nitrate from its drinking water. The hypoxic zone the size of the state of Massachusetts, in the Gulf of Mexico, is another legacy of the contribution of crop-subsidy programs to environmental degradation.

By contrast, CSP is designed to provide incentives for farmers to adopt stewardship practices that protect resources. At the third tier of participation, farmers enrolled in CSP are expected to protect all resources of concern from degradation.

Compared to crop subsidies, CSP payments are tailored for moderate-sized family farms. At the highest level of resource protection, a farmer is limited to a payment of $45,000 per year. By contrast, 71% of the $80 billion paid for crop subsidies over eight years went to 10% of the recipients. In Iowa, the top recipient received nearly $2.5 million.

The Conservation Security Program was created by visionary thinkers with the promise that it could transition us to a new era in farm policy: from supporting resource depletion to supporting resource conservation, from supporting “bigger is better” to supporting family farms.

Who is going to be our champion? Who among you on the USDA panel today is going to go back to Washington and stand up to the dictates of OMB? We need your support. Will you help us transition to a conservation farm policy, or will you let this administration backslide to business as usual?

We think it is time to begin supporting people and the environment instead of corn and soybeans. We hope you agree.

Thank you.

Editor's Note: The USDA is currently reviewing a petition to redraft the original rules issued for the Conservation Sercurity Program to take advantage of the uncapped status of the program.