COMMENTARY

To live on a piece of land
Tufts University student and family farm activist says its time we scale back commodity payments and start supporting conservation farming. 

By Aimee Witteman
Posted October 13, 2005

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“We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century; our tools are better than we are, and grow faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in history; to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”

~Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac”

In Iowa there is an old saying that corn and hogs go together like ice cream and kids. Growing up in the Midwest, I could see this adage illustrated on the Iowa countryside as my family drove along the rolling county highways. The only landmarks interrupting the dizzying rows of corn were farmhouses, dirt hog lots and small farrowing huts scattered around pastures. More recently the view from the car window has changed, as the predominance of small- and medium-sized diversified farms has given way to an industry increasingly characterized by highly specialized, large operations run by a dwindling number of farmers.

Besides displacing other farmers in their area, these farms have received increased media attention for the water and air pollution attributed to their sizeable lagoons of manure wastes. In short, the scale these farms are operating at exceeds the land’s capacity to recycle the nutrients produced, leaving the excess to contaminate nearby drinking water and ecosystems as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.

A leading cause of this development on Iowa farms and elsewhere is the current structure of commodity payment programs. These are taxpayer dollars paid to corn, wheat, soybean, cotton, and rice growers according to the land’s historical base acres and yields. On Capitol Hill last Wednesday, the Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) chose to support these commodity payment programs at the expense of food stamps and the environment during his announced strategy for cutting the food-and-agriculture budget as required by the budget Congress passed this spring (called Budget Reconciliation).

Under this current proposal, hugely disproportionate cuts will come from conservation programs, though they make up a comparably miniscule fraction of the overall budget. In particular, Chambliss’ proposal targets the Conservation Security Program (CSP), a policy that rewards farmers and ranchers for achieving environmental benefits on their land through conservation practices. The current proposal would virtually gut CSP, allowing it to make up 27 percent of the total reconciliation cuts though it represents less than 1 percent of the total Farm Bill mandatory spending.

While originally designed during the Depression to support small- and medium-sized family farmers, commodity payments have more recently contributed to their decline. Of the 33 percent of farmers who receive commodity payments, the top 10 percent receive more than 70 percent of the allocations. The largest payments, some of which are in excess of $1 million, not only allow these recipients to increase the scale of their operations, they are capitalized into land values which benefit the largest landowners most while detrimentally impacting renters, who make up 40 percent of all U.S. farm operators. With a growing number of family farmers getting pushed out of their livelihoods because of prohibitive land and rent prices, as well as increased competition with industrialized mega-farms, Budget Reconciliation presents a timely opportunity to make changes to our outdated and dysfunctional commodity payment programs.

Payment limitations are part of the Rural America Preservation Act of 2005 (S. 385), a bipartisan bill that offers a palatable solution to our budgetary situation. Payment limitations could produce much of the needed savings by lowering the payment caps on commodity program subsidies from $360,000 to $250,000 for individual recipients and closing loopholes that allow recipients to legally evade the $360,000 cap. Payment limitations are not an elimination of subsidies; rather, they are a way to discipline the $10 billion-$20 billion dollar a year commodity programs in a way that targets only those farmers already reaping well over $250,000 from the government. The savings from payment limitations could ease the pressure on food stamps and conservation programs while also preserving rural communities and keeping family farmers on their land by reducing land-price inflation. Utilizing payment limitations is clearly a more equitable and rational way to produce the needed budget savings.

We face crucial decisions in the way to proceed with our farming programs. The
CSP represents a positive example of an alternative direction in agriculture. Unlike any other federal program, the CSP payments are available to all farmers and ranchers who develop a plan to protect resources of concern. We have hardly begun to see how this new program, passed in the 2002 Farm Bill, can flourish if implemented and funded adequately so that farmers can actually take advantage of it. Environmental and energy costs, strengthening hurricane storms, and pressure from our World Trade Organization (WTO) trading partners are impacting and being influenced by the way we produce food in the United States. The CSP seeks to achieve energy conservation and riparian protection, and is also accepted by the WTO for its non-trade-distorting status. Perhaps most importantly, the CSP is supported by a growing number of consumers who are demanding food that is produced by farmers taking concrete steps to ensure the sustainability of the land for future generations.

The window and view from it are still open. Tell your senators to implement
payment limitations and save the CSP.

Aimee Witteman is a graduate student at Tufts University studying agriculture, trade and environmental policy. She is also co-coordinator of the student-activist group FOOD.