Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ethics, Conservation, and Farming

That's a pretty big subject - but I'm gonna try to cover what little I see and understand. Disclosure: I've never claimed to be a farmer. I am a landlord. The gals at the .gov office call me and tell me when to get my butt in and sign. The two farmers who have leased my ground took/take care of the rest.

But, I do live on the old farmstead, and my life is intertwined with farming and cattle ranching. While my truck driving job brings home the bacon, the growing of plants and animals remains near and dear to my heart. What started this was a blog post that Frank W. James (Farmer Frank) made on his blog. Basically, he covered why he is against the pending release of CRP acres. After some research, I find I am in favor of releasing CRP acres for forage use for cattle. Several years ago, my neighbor, friend and farmer who leases my ground probably had his business saved by a similar release. We were in an extended drought, and pasture was non existent. Feed was in short supply as well. Some of his cattle were put on CRP ground to graze, and both he and they survived. Now the CRP shows no sign of the grazing, and he is still in business.

The program as it stands is supposed to allow producers to bale or graze CRP acres in afflicted areas - in the flooded areas where the feed was destroyed, and in southeast Colorado, where they have been suffering from drought conditions. I am totally in favor of this. There of course have been lawsuits:

Even so, Judge John C. Coughenour of Federal District Court in Seattle was right to issue an injunction blocking the release pending a hearing next week.

Several environmental groups in Washington State had sued, arguing that releasing conservation lands imperils important habitat — for sage grouse, among other species — and that a fuller environmental assessment was required.

The farmers certainly deserve sympathy, but the potential environmental damage caused by taking these lands out of conservation is far too great. It would push cattle onto marginal lands that were set aside, in part, as wildlife habitat, and turn the Conservation Reserve Program into a subsidy for cattle growers.

Using ground that probably should have been pasture (instead of farmground) as pasture in the first place isn't going to put a major strain on the ecosystem. The release is contingent on the timing of the primary bird nesting - the local birds will have completed nesting before the grazing will be allowed.

As to releasing CRP ground for grain production - I am against that. The ground in this area is marginal, and I think the long term effects will be harmful for both the environment and the financial health of farmers. Most farmers view most of the Farm Bills as a cheap food policy - the consumers and food stamp recipients are guaranteed cheap food while farmers are barely kept alive. Most farmers have had to increase the acreage they control just to stay in business. Mr. James covers this very well in his post: Economies of Scale and Cash Rent...

Releasing CRP acres for grain production isn't going to make farmers more money in the long term. Fuel and fertilizer prices are going to require some similar prices for grain. Growing far more grain than demand requires will bring prices down. Not good for farmers. Besides, the cost of food is fairly well removed from the cost of the commodity these days anyways. It is said the bread wrapper costs more than the grain in a loaf of wheat. I've given my opinion on the issue of food shortages and alcohol production already.

We all tend to try to argue that keeping the family farm alive is good for the United States because letting large corporations control the farming will hurt both food prices and the future of our farmground. Complete vertical integration of food processing will eliminate the need for a grain and cattle market. If you own the ground and the factories, then there isn't much sense in using a grain market at all. You can charge what you want for your products if there isn't any competition, and you control all aspects of production.

I'd like to illustrate just what some poor farming practices promoted by larger businesses have done here in this area. My father was a board member of the local Conservation Board for years. He felt it was his civic duty, and he also believed in the idea that the soil needed to be tended. He was a caretaker. One of the ways he did this was to terrace the ground he farmed. Most of the ground he had terraced was rental ground, controlled by a large farming trust. He also left the "draws" in grass to help control erosion. The terraces were partly funded by government grants as well - so he, the trust, and you, the taxpayer, paid for these terraces.

In later years, the management of the trust changed to someone who was concerned more with the bottom line than being a caretaker. Dad was forced to break out some ground he had in grass - the grass he had to help control erosion. He argued against it to no avail, and eventually he lost that ground to someone who would do as they were told. I'm not belittling the people who farm the ground now - they are just doing as they are told.

The above is a picture of the bridge "downstream" from some of the grass Dad broke out. That bridge is almost completely silted in. There was actually a need for that bridge twenty years ago, now, not so much. The terraces have been worn down due to farming over the tops - rather than farming on the contour. The terraces have not been rebuilt. There is no financial advantage for either the landowner or the farmer to do so.

These two shots are of the same "draw" or "cut." The top dates from 1991 and was available online, and the bottom is the latest shot from Google Earth. The data in Google is outdated, as we will see in a bit. Dad was farming the ground in '91, and had been told to work up the grass in the bottom. The draw in the top picture runs to the north and is slightly to the left of center. The white is what we used to call the "chalk bluffs." The ground was on a hillside and was so chalky grass barely grew. The bottom picture shows the same ground with the erosion even more evident. See how the "draw" is cut deeper into the ground? Look at the fenceline to the north. See how the pasture to the north is filling with silt? The ground is being farmed - again - over the tops of the terraces and not contoured. You can see the outlines of the terraces from the air, but their usefulness is pretty well shot. The chalky ground is still bare in the bottom picture. The silt buildup on the south side of the property line is full of weeds. At least something is growing there.

Now, lets change up a bit:

This is an aerial view of a little conservation area where the farmer put in a bunch of trees and grasses. You, the taxpayer, paid for the trees, and the farmer was paid for putting them in and planting the grass. There are payments made over the years for the upkeep of this kind of area. One of my friends has a little area I'll cover in a bit, and told me what was involved. The farmer who owned this little area declared bankruptcy, and another large farmer bought the ground.

These are pictures of the trees now. The top picture shows the center pivot installed behind the pile of tree stumps and the corn, which is burning up and isn't going to do well this year. The big farmer bought that ground and paid an exorbitant amount for it - in the opinion of most of the other local farmers. In order to make the ground "pay," this big time farmer decided to rip out the trees and grass, and bring in earth movers to allow the center pivot to be able to run over the rough ground. He also had to drill that well. I don't know if he hired the earth movers, or owned them himself, but I'd bet the fuel bill alone would knock yer socks off. I took the top picture pointed northeast, and the bottom directly east into the pile.

Now we are looking at some of my family's land. The ground in question is the southeast corner of the half section The Poor Farm is on. The top pic shows a chunk of grass that has the "hook" following the draw to the northwest. I took the middle picture of the tree from slightly north of the crossroad - if there really was a road there - pointing to the west/northwest. The bottom pic is of the tree from the south. The same tree in the top picture is in the west half towards the south edge. I was hoping to show the depth of the little valley and how rough the ground really is.

The point of me showing these pictures is that I could have this ground worked up and try to grow wheat/milo on it. If the ground had been in production when we tried to get it into CRP, the balance of poor soil would have gotten it into the program. Since the poor soil was already out of production, there was a higher percentage of "good soil" that disallowed the quarter to be put into the program. So, by following good conservation practices, the ground was not accepted.

I promise - those on dialup - I'm done with the pictures. Above is my buddy Scooby's little wildlife refuge, just south of his abode. He's won several awards for this little corner. He was given the trees, and some payments for keeping it up, but overall has not come out ahead on time and labor, or opportunity cost for farming purposes. It looks like he is farming two parts of it, and yes, he is planting in those areas. Food crops - for deer and pheasant. He had to have special permission to do it, and the ground is regularly inspected. CRP ground is inspected as well - if the farmer is allowing too many weeds, or it is damaged in some way - he is required to tend to the problem. Most take care of whatever comes up before it's a problem with the .gov.

So, why did I show you all of this? CRP is a good program in a macro kind of way, but not so much in a micro sense. What good would it have done for me to work up the thirty five or forty acres that I have in grass, only to plant it and all the rest of the quarter to the approved mix for the CRP program? What good does the CRP program do for the erosion evident in the examples I've shown above?

I don't fault the farmers or landowners for trying to maximize their investments. The idea of planting fencerow to fencerow is hardly new. If I paid close to $2k an acre for dryland ground in this area, and turning it into irrigated ground was possible, well, I'd be looking into it for sure. There are payments associated with keeping the little reserve areas, but they have been diminished. My buddy Scooby stated that if the .gov stops paying him, he'll continue to keep the little area he tends. He's losing money on it now, even with the payments.

These are examples of economies of scale hurting the local ecology in the long run. Most family farmers are caretakers. Large corporations are not. They are beholden to their stockholders and profits in the short term, not to the tending of ground kept in a family's trust for generations. This is why family farming is important. The farmer who wants to keep ground in the family is invested with the idea of keeping the farm ground in good condition for generations to come. The future of our nation's ability to feed itself is dependent on our abilities to preserve the tillable acres for the future.

Which brings me to another point. If those of us who tend these acres don't care for them in an ethical manner, I guarantee you Joe Taxpayer will not be a happy camper, and the .gov will be sticking their noses further into our business whether we like it or not. We already have the Sierra Club and other .orgs messing with our livelihoods more than we care for. Why keep poking the hornet's nest?


Farmer Frank said...

Erosion, both wind and water, is a natural byproduct of economy of scale farming. And economy of Scale farming is and has been the policy of several presidential administrations.

You did a good job of illustrating why there has to be a better way beyond a national policy of economy of scale for our agricultural policies.

All The Best,
Frank W. James

Earl said...

I am glad I get to read this, but then I have always thought that responsibility rests with the individual not with the larger government oversight. But then maybe I expect too much.

Jeffro said...

earl: The ship of government oversight sailed a long time ago when we let government in our lives in the first place. Now we all argue about the degree.

ptg said...

I had to take a while to digest this one. After a week, I had something thought up in response, but between Frank and Earl, its been said. Good stuff, jeffro.