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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

On the Farm with the Farm Bill

Air Date: Week of

Farmer Michael Heller says Farm Bill money will encourage healthy pasture practices to keep nutrient runoff out of the Chesapeake Bay. (Jeff Young)

The farm bill gives mixed messages to farmers when it comes to the environment – boosting conservation programs at the same time it subsidizes harmful farming practices. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young spent some time down on the farm to get a feel for what's working and what’s not with the bill, on the ground.


GELLERMAN: Daniel Imhoff’s book is called “Food Fight: A Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill.” Critics may find plenty of pork in the legislation, but many members of Congress are only too happy to bring home the bacon to their constituents. Among them environmentalists, who are pleased with some of the provisions aimed at protecting the land. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young went down on the farm for a closer look and put his ear to the ground.


YOUNG: Clagett Farm in Maryland lies just outside of Washington, D.C. It’s a good example of how action inside the beltway can change how farmers do business in the real world outside the beltway.


YOUNG: Farm manager Michael Heller is putting away a load of rye straw. More area farmers might do the same, thanks to the extra money in the Farm Bill’s conservation programs.

HELLER: The rye’s really great ’cause it not only protects the soil over the winter months, but it sucks up any left-over nitrogen, and binds it up in the plant. And then in the spring we’ll harvest it and use it to mulch our vegetables, so it’ll rebuild the soil and protect the soil from erosion. So it works really well for our farming system, but it also works for the bay.

YOUNG: That’s the Chesapeake Bay he’s talking about. Its once rich stocks of fish, crabs and oysters are imperiled by the suffocating effects of excessive nutrients.


YOUNG: Heller runs the farm for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as a working, profitable business that demonstrates best practices to keep nitrogen and phosphorous out of the rivers and streams that feed the bay.


HELLER: When you add up all the little streams, I mean this stream is barely two feet across, but it runs pretty robustly and you get a good rainstorm, and with the thousands of little streams like this it has a tremendous impact.

Farmer Michael Heller says Farm Bill money will encourage healthy pasture practices to keep nutrient runoff out of the Chesapeake Bay. (Jeff Young)

YOUNG: How much does agriculture contribute to those kinds of problems in the bay?

HELLER: In the bay region, about 40 percent of the nitrogen and about the same amount of the phosphorous entering the bay is coming from agriculture.

YOUNG: So with these conservation programs, you‘ve got an opportunity to take a bite out of almost half of the nutrient problems.

HELLER: The beauty of agriculture is it’s the cheapest place to reduce your nutrients. Wastewater treatment plants are much more expensive than paying farmers to control the nutrients on their land, and generally it benefits the farms as well.


YOUNG: Clagett Farm has buffer zones of grass and trees along streamside to catch and filter out nutrient runoff. Heller also fences off the streams to keep cattle and their manure out of the water.


HELLER: Hey, guys!


HELLER: Now as you walk through here you’ll see lots of clover coming up in the grass. The clover fixes nitrogen so we don’t have to spread nitrogen fertilizer on the hay here. That’s the sort of thing that the conservation programs in the farm bill will help farmers manage pastures really well, because really good pasture is good for the bay.

YOUNG: Why wouldn’t a farmer just do this on his own?

HELLER: Most of these practices really cost something and the problem with many of them is, while there are long-term benefits, there are short-term, fairly substantial costs. I think farmers are interested in doing things as well as they possibly can if the funding support is there to help them, you know, do it.

YOUNG: About half a million farmers, foresters and ranchers around the country applied for conservation programs since 2002, but were turned away because there wasn’t enough money. The new bill adds about four billion to those programs. Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker says about 80 million a year will go to the six states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

BAKER: We think this may be the most important vote ever to come out of Congress for the Chesapeake Bay in history. We think there’s a possibility that we may be at a tipping point. We think it has the potential to dramatically change water quality in the bay over the next five years.

YOUNG: Great Lakes and Everglades restoration programs will also benefit. There’s even some money to protect pollinator habitat at a time when declining honeybee populations can sure use some help. But that’s not the whole picture. Some other conservation programs got the axe, like one called Sod Savers. It would have discouraged farmers from plowing up native prairie grasses. But farm state senators gutted that provision.

And critics say the bill’s subsidies to commodity crops like cotton, rice and corn still promote environmentally harmful practices that can cancel out the benefit of the conservation programs. Sarah Hopper is an attorney with Environmental Defense Fund.

HOPPER: Basically it’s like having a foot on the brake and a foot on the gas at the same time. We’ve got provisions in the commodity title that encourage certain behaviors, and then in the conservation title we pay farmers to do the opposite thing.

YOUNG: Hopper used to work for the Senate Agriculture Committee, where she learned a few things about how the Farm Bill works. She says the bill makes it much easier for farmers to get crop insurance and disaster payments, and that makes it more likely that marginal lands will be put into production, often in sensitive areas more prone to drought.

HOPPER: With prices very high and then the assurance that Uncle Sam is gonna be there to bail you out, it changes the math and I think you’re gonna see people breaking out that new land. So you're damaging the environment and you’re going to increase the taxpayer burden in terms of bailing those folks out when you have a loss.

YOUNG: So, on balance, who’s right here? The president who wants to veto this bill or the Congress, which will almost certainly override his veto?

HOPPER: You know, that’s a hard question to answer, Jeff. I mean, the overall point I think that people need to understand is that it’s a very disappointing state of affairs that we’ve ended up here. We could have had a bill that the president would have signed, and we could have seen a bigger increase in conservation funding. In general I think it’s just a failure of leadership all around.

YOUNG: Hopper calls it a mixed bag at best. Conservation programs will grow, but, for the most part, the Farm Bill means business as usual down on the farm.

For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Prince George’s County, Maryland.



The Government Accountability Office report on loss of native grasslands

An overview of the Farm Bill from the Senate Agriculture Committee

Environmental Defense Fund on the Farm bill

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation


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