Farmer, world, push conservation spending

David Fier talks to visitors
Southwest Minnesota farmer David Fier talks to livestock owners about cattle and the benefits of conservation techniques for farmers
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Government farm subsidies cost a lot of money, about $23 billion last year alone. Most of the money goes to support specific crops like corn, soybeans, rice and others.

David Fier
Southwest Minnesota farmer David Fier has used farm programs to help install grass buffers along waterways and plant thousands of trees.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

A much smaller part helps farmers improve their land to fight soil erosion and other problems.

Southwest Minnesota farmer David Fier has used some of that money to install grass buffers along waterways and plant thousands of trees. He says the conservation work fits his philosophy that a farmer must protect the soil that grows the food. He also likes the side benefits; his work provides homes from a wide range of wild animals.

"When you stop a tractor to put a bird back in its nest or stop to let pheasants run across the road I guess you're a conservationist at heart," says Fier.

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On this day he's got more to do than tend to cattle and crops. Several busloads of livestock producers have stopped by, part of a tour they're taking of area farms. He tells them cattle and conservation can go hand in hand.

"That's part of being a good land steward, enjoying it yourself and showing the future generations what we have out here in rural America," says Fier.

If farmers like Fier and others have their way, the next farm bill will have more money for conservation programs. Some people would like to see federal money used to directly reward farmers for taking steps to protect soil and waterways.

"That does mean investing more in such things as environmental policies."

A farmer might get money for things like leaving crop residue on harvested fields. The stalks and leaves form a protective blanket, lessening the chance of wind or water erosion. Environmental groups like the idea because they believe more conservation money will help cleanup the nation's rivers and provide other benefits.

For completely different reasons, many countries around the world also want to see increased conservation payments. Darryl Ray has studied the issue, he says many nation's feel current U.S. farm subsidies hurt developing countries.

"If you're going to help farmers, why you want to do it in a way, they would argue, that is the least trade distorting," says Ray. "Which in their mind means that it doesn't influence prices of commodities on the international market, unduly."

Ray directs the University of Tennessee's Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. He say many nation's feel U.S. farm subsidies lower world grain prices.

Their argument goes like this: subsidizing farmers encourages them to produce ever more corn, soybeans and other crops. These plentiful grain supplies reduce world prices. U.S. farmers can afford lower prices because the government subsidy fills in the economic gap. Poor nations can't pay subsidies. Their farmers live with low prices or go out of business.

Ray says with powerful groups like the World Trade Organization criticizing U.S. farm subsidies, there's a chance Congress will make changes in the next farm bill.

Tree branch
A branch from a tree David Fier planted for conservation purposes
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

"If there are some things that can be done that will not upset the apple cart but at least seem to be moving in the direction of WTO kinds of policies they will do it," says Ray. "And that does mean investing more in such things as environmental policies."

Under WTO guidelines, federal money paid to farmers for conservation practices are usually considered non-trade distorting and not a threat to poor nations.

It's one of the subjects sure to come up at the Marshall hearing. The Bush administration says the farm subsidy program must change. If it does, it could mean better soil and more trees on farms like those operated by David Fier.