A messed-up tale

By Art Cullen

Sally Brecher’s predicament with her filter strip along Episcopal Creek perfectly illustrates what is so messed up about our federal and state agricultural and natural resource conservation systems and programs — and why the next farm bill is so crucial. As fewer farmers are around to participate in the farm bill, fewer of us even in Buena Vista County pay attention to the debate surrounding it, which is underway.

Here is the problem, as reported by Tom Cullen and Dolores Cullen: Many years ago, Chet and Sally Brecher wanted to protect the creek, and ultimately Storm Lake, from erosion and nutrient loss. So they enrolled in government conservation programs, planted grass and pine trees, dug sediment dumps in the creek to catch soil that washed downstream through their land from neighbors, and farmed the land responsibly with an eye out for all. It is well and good that the federal government should support a family trying to mediate a problem created by a world agricultural complex.

 But now that widow Sally Brecher, having lost old cowboy Chet, is trying to re-enroll that strip in conservation easements. She is told by the government that those trees must go. Or, she will not receive any more payments. Of course, her first thought was: With no apparent alternatives to produce income from the land, which is of course a necessity, it is too bad and so sad that corn or beans must go there after the trees get ripped out.

The trees were good under a previous iteration. Now they are not. No accommodation is made. Everyone in Storm Lake thought it was great. The Brechers received an award from the Lake Preservation Association. The farm neighbors liked what they did, too. But rules are rules. The rules are written in the farm bill, which emerges from the House. There, all the regional interests scrap over the details, cotton versus corn versus wheat versus rice versus soy. Midwest v. Southeast. Capital v. land, rural v. urban. In the House, there are serious attempts to undermine the conservation title (and the food stamp title). The Senate tends to mediate these regional and interest-group conflicts. But the Senate cannot tie the majority leader’s shoes these days. So we worry that a rational conservation title that supports stewardship and profitability will not find sufficient oxygen on Capitol Hill to answer Sally Brecher’s dilemma. Fortunately, she does not have to wait and worry too much, because the Lake Improvement Commission wants to be able to kick in enough funds to keep Brecher and the filter strip whole. God bless them all.

But what about the other farmer who wants to do the right thing — grazing cattle on native grass when the corn planter will bid higher for that hillside — but cannot under the strictures of federal farm policy? The Lake Improvement Commission cannot help them all, just the ones with a vital interest in protecting the lake. What about the farmer near Marathon next to the Raccoon River? Who is flexible enough to write him into the next program alongside a good steward like Brecher?

Our retired friend, Sen. Tom Harkin, wrote the Conservation Security Program into the farm bill as one of his final acts as chairman of the Agriculture Committee. It provided the framework to solve Sally Brecher’s problems and the farmers near Marathon. It would pay owners for putting conservation practices onto working farms. Its funding and implementation were stunted by crop insurance and the agribusiness lobby to the point that landowners weren’t that interested. Crop insurance, which protects against planting the river bottom, is a straighter play to a profit. Taking acres out of production is anathema to the chemical complex and to the farmer woven into it, who can only make a living through its prescriptions. So you plant some beans on that filter strip and buy some crop insurance to hedge your bet and you spray it with chemicals to keep the weeds at bay and some of it, no doubt, will end up in Episcopal Creek.

When that CRP contract next to the Raccoon River near Newell expires in eight years, it probably will get planted in corn again, on a hill leading directly to the river. The funds are not likely to be there because we assumed that they would be. The local soil conservation folks have no idea where the Conservation Reserve Program is headed. They could not reliably advise you how to make a 10-year bet on land in the current political context.

Investors seek stability. The Brecher strip is stable. Sally counts on that income. That 20 acres of CRP ground near Newell is stable, but will not be in eight years unless Congress increases the size of the program, which it will not.

That is why we dredge Storm Lake. That is why we fret about the Raccoon River, and who might sue us next. If you really care about the farmer, you will give him as many options as you can to help him make a profit in sustainable ways that improve our larger community. When those options make sense, almost every farmer will take them. What doesn’t make sense is Sally Brecher planting beans when she thought she had a farmer’s handshake with the government.