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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Farm Bill

Air Date: Week of

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Washington lawmakers are writing the next Farm Bill. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum travels to South Dakota to see what's at stake for the people and the prairie.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. The U.S. Congress is writing its first Farm Bill of the 21st century. Last time around, the goal was to wean farmers off crop subsidies. But a market collapse has left farmers without a safety net and more dependent than ever on the government, and some want to see crop subsidies restored. But others say the money might be better spent on conservation. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum visited South Dakota to find out how the Farm Bill could effect the land, and the people there.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That's the sound of corn, working its way toward harvest in White Lake, South Dakota.

C. GILLEN: Each one of these is a little piece of pollen and it has to touch the silk to fertilize the corn, and each silk has to have a piece of pollen to make a kernel of corn.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Carol and David Gillen walk me through one of their cornfields. Ten years ago, we'd be standing in grass and cows. But the Gillens, like many ranchers in South Dakota, have stopped ranching, and started raising crops.

D. GILLEN: The whole corn belt's moving west, and it's pushing the cattle out.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The Gillens made the switch after comparing spreadsheets with farmers from around the state.

D. GILLEN: The cow-calf guy, which we were doing, the last five years profit on our farm was four dollars an acre. And the last five years profit of the grain operation, the grain farmer was 25 to 35 dollars an acre.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: David says the main reason farmers are outpacing ranchers is government price support for the crops they grow.

D. GILLEN: The Farm Bill is written to protect the corn and soybean and wheat farmer, and the cotton farmers. So they're protecting us, so what do we do? We increase production, create more bushels, and lower the cost.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The market price for grain has dropped so low in recent years, the government's been forced to bail farmers out. This year, five and a half billion dollars were doled out, a testament to the cycle of rural welfare. Not an ideal situation, David admits, but one he can raise his family on. Ranchers meantime get little in the way of government support.

D. GILLEN: So when the financial thing starts folding up on the cattle guy, he sells out or does something. Where the grain guy, he doesn't have to worry about a huge loss next year; at least he'll be able to maintain next year with the government help.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Today's farm programs go back to New Deal legislation. Farmers who grew staples like corn, tobacco and cotton formed a lobby powerful enough to convince Washington to support them. Livestock were not included, and the reasons to plant, rather than graze, grew stronger. And the subsidies kept flowing, decade after decade. Now, half our grasslands are gone. The fertile, tall-grass prairie, is down to one percent of its original size. Medium and short grasses are declining, too. All this on a continent where grass once covered the giant middle. And so, we've started doing what we usually do when we've run a fish down almost to extinction, or mined a mountain until it's poisoned. We try to fix it. We've started replanting the prairie.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Just west of David Gillen's farm, is Dave Konechne's place. Dave grew up here. He raised wheat and oats and corn, and eighteen children, too. Now, he's raising grass.

KONECHNE: Right now we're going to look at a planting, that was planted the 20th of June. Steve is going to do a status review...

AUCH: I need to look at it, and do a status: how it's doing, has the practice been successful?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Steve Auch works for the federal agricultural office that oversees conservation programs out here. He gets down on his knees, fingers the barely-sprouted blades of grass. Most of what there is to know about the prairie, he says, you can't even see.

AUCH: The community of bacteria, fungus, living organisms like ants. They say within a section of land -- a section is about 640 acres -- there's probably more living organisms in that section of land than there are people in the whole world --

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: This ground is enrolled in the government's Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to seed cropland back to grass. Dave's also involved in a program that helps his cattle graze the land more gently. Then there's WHIP: the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program. In the fall, Dave opens up his land to pheasant hunters, most from out of state. It's a lucrative business. Dave can take in about four thousand dollars a day during hunting season and the government programs that help him help the grass also help the pheasants.

KONECHNE: This here is big blue-stem, Indian grass, and switch grass.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Dave's goal is to plant all his land back to native grass. It takes patience, he says, but where grass grows, it holds the soil, which keeps sediment, pesticides and fertilizer from running into rivers, which protects drinking water. Native grasses help keep invasive species out. We need corn and wheat and soy, Dave says, but not everywhere.

KONECHNE: Tilling some of the fragile lands like this out here, just doesn't look to me like it's good for the land. They say it takes a hundred years to build an inch of top soil, and one good heavy thunderstorm can wash away an inch.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But how do you begin to reverse a trend toward monoculture when monoculture is where the money is? Last year, the USDA spent more than 20 billion dollars to help farmers grow crops. That's about 16 times what it spent conserving land. In South Dakota, and across the nation, there's a backlog of farmers who want to join conservation programs, but not enough technicians or money to help them. Even if there were, it would be a game of catch-up. Every time one acre of South Dakota land goes into conservation reserve, almost half an acre in some other part of the state is newly plowed for crops.

Grassland advocates want to see a new Farm Bill that stops the loss of prairie before it starts. And they're trying to be heard in Washington. There the debate has turned bitter over which is more important: conservation, or production. Those who know the prairie well, however, say conservation and production can coexist. Their meeting place is with the cows, and the ranchers who keep them.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: According to Jim Headley, the secret to staying in ranching is to keep it simple.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Like with this little tractor he drives around, to save gas. Jim's won awards for good management. He runs 300 cows on about 3,000 acres of land, rotating them among his many fields. He keeps them out of new pasture with fencing.

HEADLEY: Now, when I move them into this area, that grass will grow back.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: If taxpayers knew more about farm programs, Jim thinks they'd rather pay for policies that support the land and the people on it. He says even well-intended programs, like conservation reserve, can go awry if they're misused. Some farmers have plowed up native grass and planted crops just so they could enroll it in the program and re-seed it for government payments. It takes hundreds of years, if ever, for the new grass to function like the prairie it was before. Jim points out a neighbor's field, former cropland now idle in reserve. It's crowded with Canadian thistle, a noxious invasive weed. Across the road, in Jim's field, all we can see is grass.

HEADLEY: You see, that guy gets 40 dollars an acre and I get nothing. See, if they could change the programs and say, "O.K. Your cross-fencing or your rotational grazing is just as valuable as this CRP." You see what I mean?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Jim likes one proposal he's seen in the Senate that would put more money into conservation on working lands. If it became law, Jim thinks he could get as much as 50,000 dollars to help protect everything from wetlands to prairie dogs: work he now does for little in return. And, he says, the bill would help other ranchers who are on the edge of giving up.

HEADLEY: If we could turn the dollars around; in other words, if I could get a government payment on grass acres like I would for corn acres, then you go into your banker and you've got a whole different scenario. Most anybody can understand that.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Ranchers may not warm easily to accepting government help. They are, by their own account, a hard-headed, independent bunch.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Jack Freeman is one of these ranchers.

FREEMAN: We're setting at Faith, South Dakota, and this is the final day of the three-day rodeo.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Jack is 72, with two gold teeth up front. His family came to South Dakota in the days when the grass seemed endless. Back then, ranchers just wanted to be left alone.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But, Jack says it can't work that way anymore. Not when a grain farmer can buy up grassland with government loans and turn it under for government payments. After the rodeo, we head out to his ranch with one stop on the way, at a wheat farm planted a couple decades ago.

FREEMAN: Every time I get up on a high point on my ranch, even though I'm fifteen miles away from this farm, and the wind's blowing, I can see this dust cloud in the air five hundred to a thousand feet. And it's blowing away. It's not the first piece of ground that blew away, and it won't be the last.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Jack grew up in north Texas, during the dustbowl of the 1930s. Here in South Dakota he's seen too much fragile land plowed under. Pick up the soil, he says.

FREEMAN: See how fine that is? Just throw a handful up in the air.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The soil scatters like sand. For the prairie to survive, Jack says, government policy towards ranchers must change. Otherwise people will scatter, too.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It's Friday night at Ray's Bar and Grill in Highmore. This county's been hit hard by the dramatic conversion from grass to crop. Farms keep getting bigger. The people, fewer.

GREG: I remember when I was a kid, Saturday night. I mean that was it. And now on Saturdays every business in town closes except the grocery store.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Max Greg is at the bar, nursing a beer and a gauze-wrapped hand he hurt in a farming accident.

GREG: We've got at least 30, 40 thousand acres in this county that are farmed by guys that pull in here with their own fuel trucks, their own groceries. They show up for a week or two in the spring and plant their grain, a week or two in the fall, and they don't spend any money in this town. When it's all small farms, everybody bought everything in town

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Ranchers can't keep up, Max says, with the rent prices that crop farmers can afford. They don't get payments, and they can't get loans or insurance. He points to Mike, standing in the corner by the popcorn machine. He says Mike's hiding from me. Mike is the federal crop insurance agent.

GREG: Mike! We want to know what federal crop has to do with this deal! Get up here and talk to her!

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Mike says he has to go home, but then he ambles over.

GREG: Here he comes.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: He's been in crop insurance for more than 20 years.

MIKE: What's really changed most is that the government subsidizes more of the premiums, you know. And more people start growing crops and breaking up more land, and getting better yields. It's just been a good program for them.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Whether crop subsidies continue to dominate farm policy, rests now with lawmakers in Washington who are working on next year's Farm Bill. If it remains unchanged, more prairie and more ranchers will be lost. So far, the House has passed a bill that gives even more money to grain farmers. There's a little more money for conservation, too, but in the Senate, more radical changes are being proposed. One would replace crop payments with a system that would benefit almost all farmers, including ranchers, based on need and conservation practices rather than on how many acres they plant. The Bush administration has endorsed this idea. But it warns, too, that the budget left behind by September 11th may leave less money for farm programs. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle wants to finish the Farm Bill soon, before the money disappears.

DASCHLE: We've got to make the economics of agriculture, especially small farm agriculture, better.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The majority leader's home state is South Dakota, which means he's beholden both to ranchers and environmentalists who want more money for conservation, and to farmers who want more for their crops. On the way to the Rapid City airport, Senator Daschle tells me that a new Farm Bill should set minimum prices for grain, so farmers can rely more on the market, and less on the federal government. And Congress, he says has to stop letting the seed and chemical and equipment companies, run farm policy. He admits that will take a revolution of sorts in the way he and his colleagues do business.

DASCHLE: Well, I guess that's the question, is how do you deal with the many conflicting pressures one feels. Sometimes I think we let the special interests, or the ones with the biggest bucks, or the greatest lobbying force make at least indirectly the decision made by lawmakers in Washington.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It's not just ranchers who get hurt by the expansion and concentration of agribusiness. Even farmers who benefit most from the farm programs --the ones who get crop payments, and insurance, and loans-- they, too, are finding there's something being lost along the way.

GILLEN: These leaves, on the corn plant, are starting to curl. They're protecting themselves from the heat.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For David and Carol Gillen, survival means planting more acres every year. And those acres most often come from neighbors who had to sell. I ask Carol what that's like in a tiny community like White Lake. She backs away from my microphone.

C. GILLEN: Let's not talk about that.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: David smiles at her, and explains.

D. GILLEN: A piece of land comes up for rent. Three farmers around want it, and there's hard feelings if two people don't get it and the other one does. The problem is, the three farmers who bid on the same land, if there's hard feelings, our wives see each other every day in town. We go to the same church, our kids to the same school. And it's tough, it is tough. It's either expand or go to the city and take a job. Some of us choose to expand, because it's taking more, more acres to provide a living for our families .

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In the weeks after my visit, Carol Gillen and I emailed each other. She'd tell me about the weather and how the harvest was going and about her eldest son, who jokes he can run a tractor 25 hours a day. She also asked that I not use the interview I did with her. She didn't want the neighbors to hear it. Later, though, she changed her mind. The farming story, she said, was too important not to tell. The story of farmers who feel they must choose between their livelihood, and the prairie, between their livelihood, and the community. Carol understands why people want rolling prairie to drive by, and thriving little farm towns to visit, but she says those are myths people remember from books as children.

C. GILLEN: It was that way a hundred years ago, or a hundred fifty years ago, but people bought this property and this land, and this is our business. And we don't own a business just for somebody to drive by on the road and say, "Isn't that cute," or "There's a wildflower should we go pick it?" People love nostalgia. I like nostalgia, but who's going to pay for it?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For Living On Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.




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