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A problem in plain view

Agriculture.com Staff 03/30/2010 @ 12:03pm

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has spent years digging up data from USDA records and then posting it on its website to the embarrassment and anger of some producers who've gotten large commodity program payments.

By courting the East Coast media, the EWG has been effective at giving commodity programs a bad name. Payments to the rich and famous and those routed to New York City addresses give the public the impression that what many of us call a safety net is really just wasteful pork.

City dwellers who read newspaper stories about big payments may not understand the difference between commodity payments' contribution to gross revenue on a farm and its smaller profit. Even direct payments may not always be pure profit for all producers.

At a time of growing federal deficits, the size and scope of commodity program payments is a legitimate issue. Groups like the National Corn Growers Association have wisely tried to shift farm policy from subsidies to protection against volatility and falling revenue.

And, I admit that I've long admired Senator Charles Grassley's consistent crusade to target commodity program payments to family farmers.

The EWG's success at raising this issue may hurt its latest project, showcasing the need for effective conservation programs.

EWG was smart to get outside of Washington's Beltway by opening an office in Ames, Iowa. And it found a knowledgeable, respected leader in the conservation movement, Craig Cox, to run it.

I'm not certain Cox is right when he says the EWG's focus on farm subsidies won't hurt its efforts in conservation. And EWG's desire to limit the corn ethanol industry won't help either. Environmentalists take a Malthusian view of the world's resources, assuming that there's no way the planet can sustain both renewable fuel and food. Farmers see that as opportunity, and more often than not, swamp the market. I agree with University of Tennessee ag economist Daryll Ray that food oversupply is normal in developed countries.

Yet, if Cox and others in the conservation movement fail to get more public support for good conservation programs, we will all be worse off in several ways.

  • In the short run, agriculture gets another black eye. Commercial farming already feels under attack. If farmers and farm groups are seen on the wrong side of this issue, public support will shrink. You can argue all day about what constitutes a big farm that doesn't need federal payments. And those payments are hidden in bank accounts. Agriculture can't sweep soil erosion under the corn canopy. A short spring drive from any city or town in farm country reveals plenty of gullies.
  • Erosion has a cost. Even before the run-up in fertilizer prices in 2008, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service estimated the value of retaining topsoil at $13.67 a ton in 2005. Part of that value is crop nutrients. Fertilizer prices moderated last year, but already some analysts are forecasting higher potash prices for 2010. If the global economy recovers, the value of nutrients in soil will only go up.
  • Finally, if you're worried about the burden of the federal deficit on your grandchildren, you should be even more worried about the loss of topsoil. It is the foundation of agriculture and civilization itself.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has spent years digging up data from USDA records and then posting it on its website to the embarrassment and anger of some producers who've gotten large commodity program payments.

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