Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Old Switcharoo

Much, much more on this issue in a later blog post, but I wanted to post to this Des Moines Register article before I added my own commentary.


Iowa Farm Bureau members cast a historic vote in Des Moines Tuesday urging Congress to tie federal farm subsidies to compliance with land conservation programs.

Alas, the members brought the resolution back for another vote the next day and killed it. For a brief moment, though, it looked like the Iowa Farm Bureau was serious about countering its reputation as an organization that cares more about making money with the taxpayers’ assistance than the environmental consequences of unsustainable farming practices.

We can only hope Congress does not listen to the Iowa Farm Bureau on this issue: If American taxpayers are going to subsidize farmers, the least they should expect in return is that farmers will be required to practice sensible land use so waters are not fouled and soil is preserved for future generations.

That expectation is met now. Farmers who accept direct support payments from the government are required to comply with federal conservation rules that prevent soil erosion and protect water quality. But Congress’ budget-cutters are poised to end direct payments, which set a floor under commodity prices. Iowa farmers aren’t likely to fight the cut because, with corn prices nearing historic record highs, they don’t need the direct payments.

There is another way to enforce conservation, however: The federal government subsidizes about 60 percent of the cost of crop insurance, which protects commodity growers from weather-related losses. But there is no link between federal crop insurance and conservation programs. The historic – though brief – proposal by the Iowa Farm Bureau delegates would have put the group on record as supporting such a link.

Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Craig Lang deserves enormous credit for pushing the idea of enforcing conservation rules. In a meeting with the Register earlier this summer, Lang said two key elements of the farm bill should be preserved: Crop insurance and conservation programs, which he likened to vital national infrastructure, such as locks on the Mississippi River and dams on the Missouri River. He and others urged the Iowa delegates to take a stand for conservation by tying it to insurance subsidies.

It’s not clear why the Farm Bureau members reversed themselves. The notion was expressed by some members that while direct payments are expendable, crop insurance is not. Marion County farmer Corwin Fee said he was all for improving the organization’s public relations, but he said “this is my livelihood. Crop insurance is a necessity to farming.” Which can be read only one way: Conservation is not a necessity to farming.

The carefully cultivated image of farmers as noble men and women who feed the world is tarnished by the fact that, unlike other business owners, farmers have a direct pipeline into the federal treasury that helps protect them from risk and market gyrations. Especially galling is the attitude of farmers who expect those subsidies without interference from the government. “We’re for conservation,” David Wrage of Benton County told the Farm Bureau delegates Wednesday. “But my membership back home just doesn’t want the government coming onto their land and telling them what to do.”

Iowa Farm Bureau members this week were close to taking a principled stand against that attitude. It is a shame they changed their minds.

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