In the 1970s, U.S. farmers were led by government policies and favorable markets to expand their production enormously, mainly for export. They did so partly by moving onto marginal lands. The result is that about an eighth of the land now in agricultural production across the country is highly erodible. The farmers probably should not be using it. Certainly the government should not be subsidizing them to use it, not in a time of towering surpluses and budget-bending support costs. But that is what it has been doing.
Now, however, Congress and the administration have fastened on the good idea of doing the opposite. In a major reversal of policy, they would pay the farmers to restore the land, setting up what is called a conservation reserve. The farm bill now in the House Agriculture Committee would create a reserve of 25 million acres, about half the 53 million considered erodible. The Senate bill calls for 30 million acres. The administration, which earlier had said a reserve was too costly, has shifted position and favors 20 million.
The argument in favor is that a reserve is a rare opportunity to marry economic and environmental concerns; it would achieve both price support and soil conservation. The government already imposes acreage set-asides each year to limit production of staple crops and prop up prices. The reserve would come on top of these, and augment them. At the same time it would prevent the gullying of land and silting-up of streams. Would-be participants would bid against each other; the government would sign with those offering to leave their land idle for the least amounts per acre per year. The government would also share the cost of putting the land back into grass and timber. Estimates are that the total cost would be about the same as continued production subsidies.
There is always a certain awkwardness in giving people money not to do things, and especially in giving them money not to misbehave. Here the government would be paying farmers to stop abusing their own land; in a sense a reserve program would be rewarding past greed. But the government was complicit in the expansion of the 1970s -- grain exports were seen as a way to finance oil imports -- and in any case soil erosion is now a national environmental problem, requiring a national solution.
The farm bills in both houses remain stuck in committee on the same first-fork-in-the-road issue that has held them up all year. These are bad times in the Farm Belt. The committees must nevertheless reduce price supports both to make U.S. products competitive in world markets and to stay within budget guidelines. It is a difficult political task, but the reserves that both bills now contain should make it easier. They can serve as balms to the farmers as well as to the land.