Ray Gaesser farms 6,000 acres of corn and soy in Iowa and has been practicing no-till farming, an environmentally beneficial practice, for decades. In recent rainy years he has also started planting cover crops, which reduce runoff but create extra expense. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

This month, I set out to discover whether what we think of as “Big Ag” is cleaning up its act.

What’s to clean up? There’s widespread agreement that, as industrial agriculture has intensified over the past 75 years, concentrating on relatively few crops and dramatically increasing yields, it has also polluted waterways and degraded soil. But we’ve also seen increased focus on such practices as no-till farming and cover cropping, which mitigate or even reverse that damage. How widespread are those practices? Are they having an impact?

I found out. I wrote a column about it. It was boring.

So I scrapped that draft, and I decided to write a different column. Because what’s interesting about these conservation practices is that they raise the possibility of constructive change in one of the most contentious issues in agriculture: government subsidies.

First, though, you should know that, yes, Big Ag is at least beginning to clean up, but adoption of conservation practices still has a long way to go. No-till (growing crops without plowing up the soil) is used on about 38 percent of the acreage of America’s four biggest crops but doesn’t seem to be increasing. (Corn is holding steady; soy has ticked down.) Fertilizer use remains stubbornly high. Cover cropping (growing crops over the winter or at fallow times so the soil isn’t bare) inspires enthusiasm and wins converts — it’s the Bernie Sanders of conservation practices — but as of 2012, the first year the USDA tracked it, it was used on less than 5 percent of crop acreage.

Not all practices are appropriate for all farms, of course, and many of the practices being implemented are too new to be reflected in USDA data. But I found general agreement that farmers are increasingly focused on these issues and that conservation, particularly in the face of climate change, is important to them.

There. Aren’t you glad I spared you the 1,200 words?

Let’s talk, instead, about money. If conservation practices are to be implemented more broadly, somebody has to pay.

For those of us who don’t wake up in the morning worrying whether 6,000 acres of corn and soy will pay the bills, something like cover cropping is a no-brainer. For Ray Gaesser, who does wake up worrying about those 6,000 acres — the ones he farms in Iowa — it’s a harder calculation.


Gaesser is a believer in the importance of conservation. He first tested no-till in the 1970s, and he was at virtually 100 percent by 1993. Between that and his other water-management strategies (terracing, for example), he kept his farm essentially erosion-free. But then, sometime around 2010, it started to rain. “We’ve had four inches of rain in an hour,” he said. “Those are 500-year rains, and now we have them every year.”

He started cover cropping. But planting cover crops on 6,000 acres is a huge expense. At $37 per acre (the average cost, according to Rob Myers, a University of Missouri agronomist who is regional director of SARE, a USDA-affiliated program devoted to sustainable agriculture), it would add up to $222,000. (Gaesser now cover crops about 40 percent of his acres.)

But wait! Cover cropping, besides reducing nutrient runoff — by about 40 percent, according to Myers — pays farmers back because more, better soil increases yields. So farmers should be able to recoup that expense, right?

In some places, for some crops, in some years, yes. In a dry year, when water retention matters more, yield increases can be 11 to 14 percent, according to Wayne Honeycutt, head of the Soil Health Institute. But in non-drought years, those increases are smaller. In the first few years, there may be no increase at all because soil improvement is just beginning. The average, according to SARE, is 4 percent for corn and 6 percent for soy.

Do the math.

At today’s prices, the yield increase doesn’t cover the cost; each crop falls about $10 per acre short. Now, 10 bucks may not sound like a lot, but you have to remember to keep multiplying by 6,000.

A $10-per-acre loss is hard to swallow. And it could be more. According to Myers, yield increases in the first couple of years could be as low as 1 percent or 2 percent. Or they could be zero. There are no guarantees in farming.

But wait! There are long-term benefits to building soil back up. It could cut fertilizer, pesticide and irrigation costs, and that would save money, too.

It would. Or at least it might.

But the fact remains that farmers who opt for cover cropping are going to have to pay real money right now (and you could do a similar analysis for other practices). Long-term yield gains and cost savings are excellent, but farm expenses and mortgages and kids’ educations may not be able to wait for them.

The calculation becomes particularly difficult if you don’t own your land. Myers points out that 39 percent of farmland is rented. “Most farmers are conservation-minded,” he says, “but it’s hard to spend money on land they’re not going to have in a few years.” Gaesser puts cover crops on acreage he rents, but he has farmed most of his rented land for a couple of decades. “There are a few farms that aren’t so certain for us,” he says, “and they would be the last ones we’d invest in.”

Ray Gaesser climbs onto a sprayer on his farm. He supports governmental incentives for environmentally beneficial practices but says that “we need to stay away from a bureaucrat making decisions for individual farmers.” (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

So what do we do about that? The environmental benefits of these conservation practices accrue to all of us. Is it fair to ask farmers to foot the bill alone?

The fact that taxpayers subsidize farmers to the tune of something north of $10 billion a year (depending on how you count, and crop yields, and prices) has been a contentious issue. Farming constituencies maintain that subsidies are appropriate for the people who feed us, while other groups, such as those with environmental or public health agendas, question why we’re paying so much money to grow crops that (mostly) become biofuel, animal feed and the processed foods we’re supposed to eat less of.

With environmental protection, perhaps we have a way to bridge that gap, because — and this is big — everyone agrees! Everyone agrees that conservation is important, that is. It won’t be so easy to find agreement on how to rejigger subsidies to provide incentives for environmentally sustainable farming.

But at least we’re starting from a little patch of common ground. When I asked (via Twitter) Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, what the next important topic was (after GMOs), he said, “How do we get more enviro benefits in return for farm subsidies?” Then I asked Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, about conservation incentives, she was cautious but not dismissive. Naturally, farmers will be happier if the government adds funding specifically for conservation programs than if it ties existing subsidies to conservation (which already happens, but only on a small portion of acreage the USDA considers most vulnerable).

Gaesser, likewise, warns that every farm is different and that legislating specific practices is tough. “We need to stay away from a bureaucrat making decisions for individual farmers,” he says. “It’s very acceptable to have in the farm bill incentives for those who implement practices that are good for the soil, good for the water, good for the environment.”

Farmers don’t want to be hamstrung or coerced, but they’re interested — and motivated — to work toward the same environmental improvements that taxpayers are entitled to ask for. Surely that’s a starting point.