Environment could direct debate over farm policy

LONDON, Ohio — Freedom to Farm has not meant the end of agricultural subsidy through farm programs.

      But the American public is going to expect environmental responsibility for its investment in agriculture.

      In a discussion of the status of farm bills at last week’s Farm Science Review, Carl Zulauf, Ohio State ag economist, said that even though farm subsidies have ended up costing more under Freedom to Farm than they did under previous farm programs, there doesn’t seem to be any real opposition.

      “There was a lot of talk about the beginning of the end of farm programs,” Zulauf said, “but the reality is that farm spending did not end.”

      The government spent $13 billion on farm programs in 1991; last year, the emergency subsidy payments made to farmers totaled $32 billion.

      What has changed tremendously, Zulauf said, are the crops planted.

      When farmers were given the freedom to plant any crop they wanted to, he said, the result was 15 million additional acres of soybeans, 1 million plus more acres of canola, and 3 million acres more of corn. At the same time, farmers planted 7 million acres less of wheat, 3 million acres less of barley, and 2 million less of oats.

      “That’s not to say this pattern has been harmful,” Zulauf said. “If American farmers hadn’t planted 15 million acres more of soybeans, Venezuela would have.”

      When the current farm program comes up for renewal in 2002, Zulauf expects Congress to pass another program very much like it.

      But the reason for spending that money, he added, can no longer be justified by an argument for economic equity.

      Last year, he said, the average farm family claimed more off-farm income than the average American household. And that was before the farm income was even considered.

      In the past, he said, the American public received guaranteed set-asides for the money it spent. With that gone, the public is going to ask that agriculture agree to do more about the environment in return for its $15 to $20 billion.

      Public opinion agrees with the view that agriculture is one of the major polluters. “Joe Six Pack views agriculture as a polluter,” Zulauf said.

      And with farmers now under 1 percent of the population, it will no longer be possible to politically muscle favorable farm measures through the legislature.

      “People like farmers,” he said. “They like trees. They like cows. They like open fields. Farms are viewed as a valued environmental amenity.

      “The card that the farming community has to play, if they will do it, is to form political liaisons with the environmental community.”

      If they can’t do that, Zulauf said, agriculture is going to lose public support.

      “I would like to wake up and read in the newspaper that agriculture has proposed an environmental farm bill,” he added.

      Although commodity prices will be a major topic when the farm bill comes up for renewal, he said, the issue that may surprise a lot of people will likely be a debate over the idea of legally limiting the use of nitrogen.


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