Conservation Reserve Program

August 7, 2007

Recently I came across an editorial analysis of the farm bills currently being legislated that began with a splenetic attack on its conservation reserve program and, in a non sequitur, ended with a relatively well-reasoned critique of the direct subsidies provided to growers of corn, wheat, soy, rice, and cotton. The arguments against these direct subsidies are plentiful, but this is the first time I've come across an argument against the conservation program.

No doubt libertarians would not like this program, as it is involves taking the people's money and redistributing it for something other than essential government services. But there's the rub — though many people do not recognize it as such, the conservation easements are paying for essential services: ecosystem services.

While the traditional subsidy system pays growers to plant more of certain crops (in theory), the easement program pays landowners not to grow crops on their land. Thus the land is allowed to "return" to a more "natural" state — which is to say, it may not look like the land did before Native Americans and later Europeans and other immigrants (forced or free) changed it, but at least it will have a chance to operate with far less direct human influence.

Our farming techniques are, on average, incredibly destructive (though admittedly they keep some food very inexpensive too). One just has to look to the amount of topsoil that has washed from Iowa into the Gulf, or at the effects of the over-fertilization that is rampant with corn production. By allowing the land to stabilize in a more natural setting, topsoil is regenerated, riparian systems are stabilized, wildlife finds a refuge, reforestation helps counteract greenhouse gas emissions, etc. Without stability, there is risk of loss of fertility, of flooding, etc.

These are services for which landowners deserve payment. They are services that effect our well-being in myriad ways; admittedly these are difficult to detect, but much recent research has gone towards placing a dollar figure on these services. To my knowledge, the farm bill's conservation program is the only program in the country that recognizes this service.