Farmers are Important Environmentalists

Jack Bardo, Research Assistant, and L. Leon Geyer, Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics Department, Virginia Tech

 Like many human interactions with nature, agriculture has a deep effect on environmental quality. However, when practiced sustainably agriculture’s environmental impact can remain minimal. Because the free market system often does not incentivize sustainable agriculture,[1] the Farm Bill contains a title to incentivize conservation in the agricultural industry. While conservation is considered by many to be a modern public policy concern, the Farm Bill has contained various conservation provisions since The Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938 (AAA). These provisions were enacted “in response to the environmental catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl that occurred during the Great Depression. The legislation established agricultural policy to support the production of sustainable food and fiber and help restore confidence in agricultural markets.”[2] Due to increased environmental awareness, conservation programs have grown in number and scope since 1938. The 1985 bill was the first to contain an individual conservation title.[3] The Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) or Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) administer most conservation programs. Some programs operate on a voluntary incentive basis while others will disqualify farmers who do not participate from receiving other federal assistance.

 The Farm Bill conservation provisions are well intentioned and oftentimes effective at keeping highly erodible farmland and wetlands out of agricultural production. However, the conservation title contains some inefficiencies that are in need of reform in order to minimize agriculture’s environmental impact without making agriculture unprofitable.

 Conservation Reserve Program

 In 2008, the conservation title accounted for 8% of the bill’s 640 billion dollar budget.[4] Like all government programs, the conservation programs have resulted in many positive outcomes as well as many shortcomings. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been one of the most successful conservation programs taking much Highly Erodible Land (HEL) and other environmentally sensitive land out of production.[5] Under CRP, USDA purchases conservation easements from farmers, paying them not to farm on land that will erode easily when plowed. Although its prototypes have existed since AAA, CRP was established in the Food Security Act of 1985. CRP allows each county to enroll up to 25% of its agricultural land.[6] This limit is established to avoid damage to the local economy.[7] Farmers may receive checks from the government to leave land idle, but leaving land idle comes at a cost to farm laborers, equipment dealers and seed dealers making the 25% cap a necessity.[8] Currently, over 100 counties exceed the limit due to a waiver from the Secretary of Agriculture.[9] Most farmers and environmentalists are satisfied with the program making it likely to continue in future farm bills.[10]  CRP even enjoys support from agribusinesses and farm trade associations.[11] CRP is the main reason for the significant reduction in cropland soil erosion from 1982 (3.06 billion tons) to 2007 (1.73 tons).[12] CRP takes advantage of local knowledge by establishing local conservation districts run by a voluntary board of farmers. Decisions by these boards do not have the force of law, but NRCS takes their recommendations into account when making policy.[13] This policy-making model has existed since the Roosevelt Administration when Hugh Bennett headed the Soil Conservation Service. “[Bennett] believed that for conservation objectives to be met, there must be local involvement.”[14] Farmers may receive assistance free of charge in implementing conservation practices from their state technical committee. USDA does not cite farmers for violations when they request assistance in implementing conservation practices.[15] This service allows farmers to become more knowledgeable about conservation tactics at little or no cost or risk.

Local involvement has led to more flexible conservation programs where the conservation policies and plans are tailored to the needs of the local community. In many instances the federal government enters funding share agreements with different states, localities, agribusinesses, and non-profit organizations to provide money to address environmental land use problems specific to a certain state.[16] For example, the 2008 Farm Bill provided $2.56 million in funding for conservation easements on farms in Duchess County, New York, with the help of additional funds from the Duchess County government, the Town of Red Hook, New York, and Scenic Hudson, a local environmental non-profit.[17] Duchess County’s agricultural economy is heavily reliant on production of local foods, and frequently sells meat and produce to upscale New York City restaurants.[18] Revenue from these conservation easements provides capital to farmers allowing them to continue production of high quality local foods and avoid the need to plow extra land or sell the land to developers.[19]

Wetlands

Agriculture is frequently cited by environmental scientists as a major contributor to water pollution due to runoff from fertilizers, livestock manure, and sediment.[20] CRP aims to protect water quality by providing payments and cost share agreements for farmers to plant stream buffers (trees, grasses, ect) that trap pollutants before entering waterways.[21]  The program also allows farmers to plant native grasses on enrolled HEL to prevent sediment runoff into rivers. Although CRP indirectly improves water quality, the Farm Bill contains other conservation programs that address water more specifically.“Agriculture accounted for 87% of the nearly 14 million acres of wetlands lost between the 1950s and the mid 1970s.”[22] However, programs like the Wetlands Reserve Program[23] and swamp buster[24] have resulted in an increase in wetland acreage since the 1990s.  Between 1998 and 2004, 299,000 acres of wetlands were destroyed and 420,000 were created or restored, resulting in a net gain of 32,000 acres.[25] WRP and swamp buster use a carrot and stick approach respectively. WRP rewards farmers for wetland conservation through tax incentives, whereas swamp buster penalizes farmers for destroying wetlands by making them ineligible for commodity programs and crop insurance.[26] WRP works similarly to CRP, allowing the Secretary of Agriculture to purchase conservation easements from farmers to keep wetlands out of agricultural production. Initially, swamp buster prohibited draining of wetlands, but the 1996 Farm Bill allowed landowners who drain wetlands to pay money to restore former wetlands or build artificial wetlands in another location and remain compliant with swamp buster.[27] This system attempts to ensure no net loss of wetlands. Wetlands are complex ecosystems containing many features and processes scientists do not currently understand.[28] As a result, artificial wetlands often fail to act as suitable substitutes making the wetland statistics less impressive than they appear.[29] When a wetland is destroyed, a replacement wetland is often placed in an area with many wetlands even if the destroyed wetland was from a wetland deficient area.[30] In addition, wetlands come in many varieties. “Many hard-to-create wetland types (such as fens, bogs and sedge meadows) are being replaced with common, easy-to-create wetland types (such as cattail marsh), or the quality of the resulting mitigation wetland is not equal to the wetland that was destroyed.”[31]

Aspects for Reform

USDA rather than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces most farm conservation programs,[32] mainly because Members of Congress who represent agriculturally dependent districts and want to act in the immediate best interest of their constituents, perceive farmers as having a working relationship with USDA and a skeptical relationship with EPA.[33] Some argue this leads to lax enforcement of environmental regulations.[34] Even trade associations representing agribusiness have touted their strong working relationship with USDA and argue EPA does not enforce environmental regulations in a way that is sensitive to farmers’ economic circumstances.[35] While farm conservation programs reduce the agricultural industry’s footprint, much evidence exists of them failing to halt degradation of many ecosystems due to inadequate regulations.[36] The problem is particularly potent in large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are owned by multibillion-dollar agricultural corporations.[37] Current conservation programs oftentimes give these corporations subsidies and tax breaks in addition to those they already receive through other government programs and tax loopholes.[38] Under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a program which pays farmers to implement sustainable agricultural practices, the largest most unsustainable livestock producers have received the most government subsidies; out competing small-scale locally owned and operated livestock producers.[39] Many criticized the 2002 Farm Bill as a handout to CAFO producers because it gave funding to producers with the greatest pollution potential rather than those that could control the most pollution at the lowest cost.[40] As a result, the government is spending more money on a conservation program that is less effective and less efficient than it could be with an alternative funding formula.[41] The Farm Bill does this in order to satisfy the wealthiest and most politically influential producers.[42]

CAFOs have continued to be polluters despite the extra EQIP funds granted to them in recent Farm Bills.[43] CAFO pollution persists because the agriculture industry is exempt from almost all provisions of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.[44] CAFOs store animal waste in large pools where the waste can runoff into nearby waterways and pollute the air without sanctions.[45] In North Carolina, CAFOs produce three times more fecal matter than the state’s human residents, but water used for human waste, unlike that from animal waste must first undergo treatment before it is returned to the environment.[46] Some CAFOs are also a nuisance to nearby residents, releasing chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide, which causes headache, nausea, diarrhea, and dizziness.[47] Farmers are required to disclose quantities of CAFO air emissions but there are no legal limits on emissions.[48] EPA, under President George W. Bush, granted an exception to the largest CAFOs allowing them to operate without disclosure requirements.[49]

Concluding Remarks

The Conservation Reserve Program has been one of the most successful and most popular provisions in the Farm Bill and no major policy actor has advocated its removal. Its success is noteworthy, but any attempt to roll back on the program should be viewed with caution since taking certain lands out of CRP will no doubt lead to more sediment overflow in rivers. In order to further improve wetland conservation, Wetlands Reserve Program and swamp buster should place more emphasis on preserving virgin wetlands because virgin wetlands are better able to perform wetland functions such as water purification and storm mitigation than artificial wetlands.[50] The aforementioned statistics regarding wetland conservation are impressive, but artificial wetlands are often poor substitutes.[51] Adjustments to WRP and Swamp buster should place more emphasis on mitigation banking, focusing on saving existing wetlands rather than creating new wetlands.

The ability to divert EQIP funds to small farmers who can reduce more waste at a lower cost is a rare opportunity to find common ground between conservatives and progressives. Fiscal conservatives would support this adjustment to reduce government spending and run both the government and the farms like a conventional business: produce the most product (in this case improved environmental quality) at the lowest cost. On the other hand, progressives will support it on behalf of reduced environmental footprint and greater social equity between small scale and large-scale farmers. Organizations representing small farmers like the National Farmer’s Union have voiced strong support for EQIP.[52] However, NFU has also advocated diverting EQIP funds to smaller producers.[53] While this political calculus seems simple, it will require a substantial amount of pressure from constituents because many House and Senate agriculture committee members have established working relationships and a steady stream of campaign money from large agricultural interests.[54] Those who benefit from flawed conservation programs have an incentive for the status quo to continue and will take action to protect it, but those who are not negatively affected but would benefit from a change are less likely to take action.[55] Reforming programs like EQIP will also create a more populist Farm Bill, especially since 80% of farm subsidies go to households wealthier than the average American family due to the agribusiness presence in the market.[56]

Works Cited

American Farm Bureau Federation, “The Voice of Agriculture.” Last modified 2013. Accessed November 25, 2013. http://www.fb.org/.

American Soybean Association, “Farm Bill.” Last modified 2013. Accessed November 25, 2013. http://soygrowers.com/

Brent, Zoe. “Farmland Preservation, Agricultural Easements and Land Access in California.” Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue: International Conference, Yale University . (2013).

Burgess, Jay. Scenic Hudson, “Federal Funds to Enable Major Farmland Preservation Effort.” Last modified 2013. Accessed November 14, 2013. http://www.scenichudson.org/news/release/federal-funds-enable-major-farmland-preservation-effort/2013-04-09.

Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Cost of 2008 Farm Bill.” Last modified July 18, 2013. Accessed October 18, 2013. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-commodity-policy/program-provisions/cost-of-2008-farm-bill.aspx

Foley, Jonathan. “Can We Feed the World & Sustain the Planet?.” Scientific American, October 18, 2011. http://www.nature.com/scientificamerican/journal/v305/n5/full/scientificamerican1111-60.html (accessed October 18, 2013).

Geyer, Leon (Professor of Environmental Law), interview by John Bardo, “Some Questions about the Farm Bill,” November 15, 2013.

Gray, Randall. “Field Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill for Fish and Wildlife Conservation.” U.S. NABCI Committee and the Intermountain West Joint Venture. No. 1 (2009). http://iwjv.org/sites/default/files/field_guide_to_the_2008_farm_bill.pdf (accessed September 25, 2013).

Helmers, Glenn and Dana Hoag. Sustainable Agriculture. Food, Agriculture and Rural Policy into the 21st century: issues and tradeoffs. Edited by Milton Hallberg, Robert Spitze, and Daryll Ray. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994.

Hunt, R.J., D.P. Krabbenhoft, and M.P. Anderson. (1996). “Groundwater inflow measurements in wetland systems.” Water Resources Research. 32(3): 495-507.

Imhoff, Daniel. The CAFO Reader: The tragedy of industrial animal factories. Los Angeles, California: Watershed Media, 2010.

Kennedy, Robert. From Farms to Factories: Pillaging the Commons. The CAFO Reader: The tragedy of industrial animal factories. Edited by Daniel Imhoff. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2010.

Klein, Robert, and Gregory Korom. “Federal Crop Insurance: The Need for Reform.” Journal of Insurance Regulation. no. 3 (2008):

National Farmers Union, Last modified 2013. Accessed November 25, 2013. http://www.nfu.org/.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, “Grassroots Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill.” Last modified 2008. Accessed September 26, 2013. http://sustainableagriculture.net/publications/grassrootsguide/conservation-environment/conservation-reserve-program/.

Natural Resources Defense Council, “Stormwater strategies: Community response to runoff pollution.” NRDC Report. (1999). http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/storm/stoinx.asp (accessed January 28, 2014).

Noble, Martha. Paying the polluters: animal factories feast on taxpayer subsidies. The CAFO Reader: The tragedy of industrial animal factories. Edited by Daniel Imhoff. Chicago, IL: Watershed Media

Pease, James (Professor of Agricultural Policy), interview by John Bardo, “Some questions about conservation policy,” Conducted September 16, 2013.

Randolph, John. Environmental Land Use Planning and Management. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2012.

Sierra Club Michigan Chapter Water Sentinels Program, Sierra Club, “Facts About CAFOs.” Accessed January 31, 2014. http://wisconsin.sierraclub.org/issues/greatlakes/articles/cafofacts.html

Smith, Vince. American Boondoogle, “Fixing the 2013 Farm Bill.” Last modified June 11, 2013. Accessed October 5, 2013. http://www.americanboondoggle.com/fake-savings-the-2013-house-farm-bill/.

Tomaselli, Paige and Meredith Niles Changing the Law: The road to reform The CAFO Reader: The tragedy of industrial animal factories. Edited by Daniel Imhoff. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2010.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. (2008). 2008 farm bill side-by-side comparison. Retrieved from U.S. Government Printing Office website

U.S. Government Benefits, U.S. Government Benefits, “benefits.gov.” Accessed September 26, 2013. http://www.benefits.gov/benefits/benefit-details/340

Whittlesey, Norman and Roy Carriker. Water, Agriculture and Pubic Policy. Food, Agriculture and Rural Policy into the 21st century: issues and tradeoffs. Edited by Milton Hallberg, Robert Spitze, and Daryll Ray. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994. p. 82

Wuerther, George. Assault on nature: CAFOs and biodiversity loss. The CAFO Reader: The tragedy of industrial animal factories. Edited by Daniel Imhoff. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2010.


[1] Foley, Jonathan. “Can We Feed the World & Sustain the Planet?.” Scientific American, October 18, 2011. http://www.nature.com/scientificamerican/journal/v305/n5/full/scientificamerican1111-60.html (accessed October 18, 2013).

[2] Gray, Randall. “Field Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill for Fish and Wildlife Conservation.” U.S. NABCI Committee and the Intermountain West Joint Venture. No. 1 (2009). http://iwjv.org/sites/default/files/field_guide_to_the_2008_farm_bill.pdf (accessed September 25, 2013).

[3] Ibid

[4] Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Cost of 2008 Farm Bill.” Last modified July 18, 2013. Accessed October 18, 2013. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-commodity-policy/program-provisions/cost-of-2008-farm-bill.aspx

[5] Pease, James (Professor of Agricultural Policy), interview by John Bardo, “Some questions about conservation policy,” Conducted September 16, 2013.

[6] Economic Research Service

[7]U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.

[8] Leon Geyer, (Professor of Environmental Law), interview by John Bardo, “Some Questions about the Farm Bill,” November 15, 2013.

[9] U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. (2008). 2008 farm bill side-by-side comparison. Retrieved from U.S. Government Printing Office website p. 29

[10] Pease, James, David Schweikhardt, and Andrew Seidl. “Conservation Provisions of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 Evolutionary Changes and Challenges.” (2009). p. 3

[11] American Farm Bureau Federation, “The Voice of Agriculture.” Last modified 2013. Accessed November 25, 2013. http://www.fb.org/.

[12]Randolph, John. Environmental Land Use Planning and Management. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2012. p. 173

[13]U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. (2008). 2008 farm bill side-by-side comparison. p. 32

[14]Ibid

[15] U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resource Conservation Service. (1996). The 1996 farm bill: Leading conservation into the 21st century. De Moines, Iowa: Iowa Soybean Promotion Board. p. 4

[16] National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, “Grassroots Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill.” Last modified 2008. Accessed September 26, 2013. http://sustainableagriculture.net/publications/grassrootsguide/conservation-environment/conservation-reserve-program/.

[17] Burgess, Jay. Scenic Hudson, “Federal Funds to Enable Major Farmland Preservation Effort.” Last modified 2013. Accessed November 14, 2013. http://www.scenichudson.org/news/release/federal-funds-enable-major-farmland-preservation-effort/2013-04-09.

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Natural Resources Defense Council, “Stormwater strategies: Community response to runoff pollution.” NRDC Report. (1999). http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/storm/stoinx.asp (accessed January 28, 2014).

[21] U.S. Government Benefits, U.S. Government Benefits, “benefits.gov.” Accessed September 26, 2013. http://www.benefits.gov/benefits/benefit-details/340

[22]Whittlesey, Norman and Roy Carriker. Water, Agriculture and Pubic Policy. Food, Agriculture and Rural Policy into the 21st century: issues and tradeoffs. Edited by Milton Hallberg, Robert Spitze, and Daryll Ray. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994. p. 82

[23] Randolph, p. 346

[24] Ibid, p. 346

[25]Ibid p. 346

[26]U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resource Conservation Service. (1996).

[27]Ibid

[28] Randolph, p. 348

[29] Ibid, p. 348

[30] Hunt, R.J., D.P. Krabbenhoft, and M.P. Anderson. (1996). “Groundwater inflow measurements in wetland systems.” Water Resources Research. 32(3): 495-507.

[31] Ibid

[32] Pease

[33] Ibid

[34] Ibid

[35] American Soybean Association, “Farm Bill.” Last modified 2013. Accessed November 25, 2013. http://soygrowers.com/

[36] Tomaselli, Paige, and Meredith Niles . Changing the Law. The CAFO Reader: The tragedy of industrial animal facories. Edited by Daniel Imhoff. Los Angeles, California: Watershed Media, 2010. P. 324

[37] Noble, Martha. Paying the polluters: animal factories feast on taxpayer subsidies. The CAFO Reader: The tragedy of industrial animal factories. Edited by Daniel Imhoff. Chicago, IL: Watershed Media, p. 221

[38] Ibid, p. 221

[39] Ibid, p. 223

[40] Tomaselli and Niles, p. 327

[41] Ibid, p. 328

[42] Noble, p. 221

[43] Ibid, p. 221

[44] Imhoff, Daniel. The CAFO Reader: The tragedy of industrial animal factories. Los Angeles, California: Watershed Media, 2010. p. 72

[45] Ibid, p. 89

[46] Kennedy, Robert. From Farms to Factories: Pillaging the Commons. The CAFO Reader: The tragedy of industrial animal factories. Edited by Daniel Imhoff. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2010. p. 204

[47] Noble p. 221

[48] Sierra Club Michigan Chapter Water Sentinels Program, Sierra Club, “Facts About CAFOs.” Accessed January 31, 2014. http://wisconsin.sierraclub.org/issues/greatlakes/articles/cafofacts.html

[49] Tomaselli and Niles p. 316

[50] Randolph p. 348

[51] Hunt et. al

[52] National Farmers Union, Last modified 2013. Accessed November 25, 2013. http://www.nfu.org/.

[53] Ibid

[54] Klein, Robert, and Gregory Korom. “Federal Crop Insurance: The Need for Reform.” Journal of Insurance Regulation. no. 3 (2008): 23-63.

[55] Ibid

[56] Smith, Vince. American Boondoogle, “Fixing the 2013 Farm Bill.” Last modified June 11, 2013. Accessed October 5, 2013. http://www.americanboondoggle.com/fake-savings-the-2013-house-farm-bill/.

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