In Washington, Congress is drawing up legislation that will set the nation's farm policy for the next 10 years. Environmentalists and small farm advocates are pushing for a more environmentally-friendly farm bill. They suffered a setback in early October, when the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly defeated a "green" amendment that would have shifted billions of dollars into conservation programs - at the expense of traditional crop subsidies. Now, advocates of change have turned their attention to the Senate, where they'e hoping to take advantage of mounting criticism of current farm policy.
Traditional subsidy programs reward farmers who grow corn, wheat, and other commodity crops. But they leave farmers like Dave Serfling out in the cold.
Serfling plants his 350 acres in southeast Minnesota with a careful mixture of alfalfa and other pasture crops, and a minimum of corn. His crop rotation protects the hilly soil from erosion, and provides food and bedding for his livestock. He raises beef cattle on pasture. His pigs live in the open air, not in huge confinement barns.
"All the pigs are raised on straw or grass, so you don't have near the smell," says Serfling. "Those are the sows and the boars on this lot, getting exercise and eating grass, what little grass is left now."
Small, diversified, environmentally-friendly farms like Serfling's are the kind the public pictures when they think about saving family farms. But they receive scant subsidies from the federal government.
So as Serfling drives through the countryside, he passes pasture after pasture that's been plowed up and planted in rows of corn and soybeans. Serfling says the environmental consequences are plain to see.
"The last two years we've had heavy rains here, and every farmer knows how bad the erosion has been on the corn-soybean rotation fields. There's no hiding it out there," he says.
Serfling and other small farm advocates are pushing for an alternative subsidy plan. It would base farmers' payments not on the volume of crops they grow, but on whether they practice good soil stewardship. Serfling calls it a "huge shift" toward a government policy that rewards environmentally sustainable farms.
"We think there are so many benefits of having that type of agriculture in the U.S., that we don't want to see it totally gone without a fight," says Serfling.
In August, Serfling's local paper, the Fillmore County Journal, ran a front page headline, "Mr. Serfling Goes to Washington." The Senate Agriculture Commitee had called him to testify.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is a strong advocate of a conservation-based approach to farm subsidies. Now he wants to include it in the new farm bill.
Some longtime observers say it's high time for change. Wayne Edgerton, Agricultural Policy Director for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, says traditional farm programs often penalize, not reward, good stewardship. He says paying farmers for good conservation practices will mean cleaner water and better wildlife habitat - things the taxpaying public solidly supports.
"With this farm bill, I've never seen conservation discussed more, (compared with) the previous farm bills that I've watched," Edgerton says. "Right now conservation is really in vogue - it's being highly discussed by the Senate, and it's being encouraged by the Bush administration." In September, the administration released a report that recommended shifting money from crop subsidies into conservation.
But some farm groups are leery. Loren Tusa is past president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. He's worried about having farmers' payments depend on the government's evaluation of their environmental stewardship.
"We live on the land, we understand that protecting that land and using it to its best possible way is important," says Tusa. "But I'm not so sure that I want to make this whole radical shift into the regular environmental-type payments."
Tusa says instead of a major change in farm policy, he'd like to see more money put into existing conservation programs. Those programs pay farmers to idle environmentally-sensitive land.
"I just really think we understand those programs, we know how to make them work and we can target them toward acres that need to be removed from production," Tusa says.
The U.S. House has already passed its version of the farm bill. The $171 billion House bill contains a modest increase for conservation, but also expands crop subsidy programs. Senate Ag Committee Chairman Harkin announced details of his farm bill proposal last week.
It provides payments of up to $50,000 a year for farmers who use good environmental practices. It makes larger increases in conservation spending than the House bill does, but does not represent as radical a shift toward conservation as some environmental groups had hoped for. It would cost roughly the same as the House bill.
The Bush administration has urged legislators to delay work on the farm bill until next year, but some farm state legislators want quicker action.
They say they fear if the legislation is delayed until next year, less money will be available for farm programs.More from MPR