Well-meaning ag programs

Interesting piece in Monday’s Tribune about a reopened USDA policy that:

…subsidizes farmers who set aside land for conservation. With roots that extend back to the 1950s, the Conservation Reserve Program encourages highly erodible land to be taken out of farm production and set aside for conservation. Instead of planting row crops, farmers are reimbursed for planting grasses and wildflowers that reduce erosion, protect water quality and enhance wildlife habitat. In exchange, the Farm Service Agency provides participants with rental payments and cost-sharing assistance. Funding for the program was approved by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill, and contracts typically last 10 to 15 years.

I’ll get a curmudgeon award for sure if I criticize this too deeply, though I think the role of taxpayer money in screwing around with the economics of farming has gone way too far regardless of how well-meaning the project. But I have a more specific concern to raise, related to this clause:

To be eligible, the land parcel must have been sown with crops during four of the past six years.

In other words, only farmers who were doing something “wrong” by the USDA’s definition get the reward. Farmers who chose NOT to plant crops in marginal acreage, through environmental or other principles, are left out. This reminds me of the mortgage bailouts in which people who bought or borrowed more than they could afford were shovelled taxpayer money, while those who kept their heads down and acted responsibly were left out.

This is not an argument specifically against programs like these; a case can be made for government intervention in problems that will cause larger problems if left alone. But it does demonstrate that our system as a whole needs serious work, when government is primarily in the business of attempting to bribe people away from bad behavior after the fact.

I don’t want to receive government payouts for managing my land responsibly; I want to be rewarded in the marketplace from customers who value that. But as a businessperson, I also don’t want to see my competitors receiving subsidies for doing or not doing something equivalent to my actions, for which I’m not eligible, just because I got it right in the first place.

The overblown system of subsidies, tax breaks, and other regulatory-financial sticks and carrots our government currently uses in agriculture (and elsewhere) is one of the prime reasons we have such a screwed up food system. Well-meaning efforts like this one have local benefits, but cause larger problems.

One thought on “Well-meaning ag programs

  1. We took advantage of several conservation programs because our whole farm is in marginal land. We decided it would be better to be paid to put in buffers than it would to have the land put off limits with no compensation.On the other hand I really agree with you. On other projects we could not get money because we were already doing the practices.I have no idea how to fix the system as those who run things are committed to the system and process rather than looking for useful results.