Voters willing to pay share of conservation benefits from farms

WASHINGTON – America’s farms and ranches are important to the nation’s voters, and not just for their locally grown food.

A new poll shows that voters value farms and ranches for the conservation benefits they provide, such as cleaner air and water and wildlife habitat. And not only do voters want the federal government to support programs that secure those values, by linking conservation practices with farm payments, but voters are willing to pay to ensure conservation benefits from farms and ranches.

The poll was commissioned by The Joyce Foundation and the American Farmland Trust.

Americans pro agriculture. The telephone survey of 1,024 registered voters nationwide uncovered strong support for American agriculture, with 81 percent of voters saying they want their food to come from within the United States.

Americans professed a close connection to farmers and ranchers, with 70 percent reporting that they have bought something directly from a farmer during the last year, such as at a farm stand or a farmers’ market.

Hot issues. Voter concern about farm environmental issues registers almost as high as for current “hot” political issues. For example, 71 percent are concerned about pesticide residues on food and 69 percent of American voters say they are concerned about loss of farmland to development, compared with more than 80 percent of voters concerned about public education and gas prices.

Seventy-eight percent of the American electorate report they are aware of government income support programs for farmers. Voters indicated they approve of these programs when they are used to correct low market prices or in cases of drought or flood damage.

Conservation link. The addition of conservation conditions to farm supports, however, received overwhelming approval, as 75 percent of American voters feel income support should come with the stipulation that farmers are required to apply “one or more conservation practices.”

“We were struck by how many voters make the link between agriculture and conservation benefits,” said Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust.

Not enough funding. Several programs exist to support conservation on farms and ranches, among them the Farmland Protection Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program.

For each of these programs, Grossi said demand has far outstripped federal funding in 2001. For Wetlands Reserve Program alone, unmet requests from farmers totaled $568 million.

This year Farmland Protection Program was allocated $17.5 million in funding, leaving a gap of $90 million and hundreds of farmers waiting in line to protect their land, Grossi said.

Preservation shift. “As expected, when we asked voters about how they wanted to increase federal spending, they placed a high priority on addressing pressing needs like finding cures for cancer, educating our children and ensuring adequate energy supplies,” said Grossi.

“What we did not expect was the finding that a majority of voters – 53 percent – feel increasing funds to keep productive farmland from being developed should be a national priority.”

Will they help pay? And voters are willing to spend their own money to help farmers protect the environment. When asked whether they would like to get all or some of a possible $100 tax refund, 63 percent said they’d forego some of that money to protect waterways, wetlands or wildlife habitat.

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