Washington — After a five-year study mandated by the 1977 Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act, the Reagan administration may make a sharp change in US conservation policies.
Soil conservation programs for farmers, which have been voluntary, may become increasingly compulsory.
This would run counter to the administration's stated desire to reduce federal regulation. But the prospect of soil erosion so severe it could undermine America's capacity to feed even itself is forcing the policy shift.
The new attitude toward soil conservation is already evident at state and local levels. Iowa, Wisconsin, and Colorado are among the first to experiment with regulations to enforce good farming practices.
It is a change all the world will be watching. Soil erosion threatens many countries. Just as the world depends on the United States for a steady supply of agricultural products, it is also looking to America for tests of possible solutions to the erosion problem.
By doubling its agricultural output over the past 30 years, the US has achieved precisely what the world as a whole must do over the next 30 years to keep pace with population growth. But with a dwindling of excess agricultural resources, which reduces flexibility to meet rising food demands, the world needs to step up production. Also, it must do this without causing the environmental damage that has been one of the uncounted costs of US farm productivity.
Whether in the US or abroad, two key factors inhibit soil conservation:
* While conservation benefits society as a whole, it has depended largely on action by individual farmers.
* Investing in more land and bigger equipment has brought quicker returns than investing in such soil-conserving measures as terracing, strip cropping, or crop rotation.
Over the past 50 years, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has tried to offset these factors by a combination of direct payments and free technical advice. This has cost taxpayers $15 billion since 1935, with the annual bill topping $1 billion since 1978.
Now US agriculturists anticipate more help being offered to farmers. In place of 80 percent government cost-sharing for farmers who adopt USDA conservation measures, the department may soon be able to pick up the entire bill in some instances. Also, federal spending is increasing for research aimed directly at helping farmers cut operating costs and soil erosion at the same time.
Funding for conservation may increase partly because many congressmen and USDA officials are convinced that hard-pressed farmers can't afford to undertake necessary additional measures on their own. Also, some policymakers recognize that work done to maintain the nation's agricultural productivity and clean up its waters is in the long-term public interest. Therefore, they acknowledge that taxpayers should pay more to the individual farmers who carry out this work.
Any additional drain on the federal budget presents political problems. But for soil conservation, the alternatives to more federal spending also have political costs. Public awareness of the country's 6.4 billion-ton-a-year loss of soil is growing. Congressmen who would postpone remedial action risk losing votes if delay compounds the problem and boosts cleanup costs. Another politically unattractive alternative would be to allow food prices to rise enough to cover the farmers' full conservation costs.
Experts admit it will be difficult to find the proper level of government support for soil conservation. As with all farm programs, one difficulty is that any nationally set level risks undercompensating many farmers while overpaying others. This is because the costs of farm production vary tremendously even between neighboring farms.
The Reagan administration still hopes for a quick research breakthrough that would make it profitable for farmers to switch to ''minimum till'' conservation farming. But few observers expect any immediate change.
Washington is considering extra federal support to add a profit incentive to soil conservation. But the likely string attached would be ''cross-compliance.'' This could mean the introduction of regulations to require compliance with a detailed USDA soil conservation plan before a farm could qualify for government loans or support payments.
Despite traditional farm-belt resistance to cross-compliance, a 1980 Harris poll reported that a majority of the farm operators surveyed supported mandatory conservation programs if backed by adequate compensation.
Sen. Roger W. Jepsen (R) of Iowa, chairman of the Soil and Water Conservation subcommittee, explains that ''we are moving in the direction of mandatory measures.'' Unless policy changes are made, he says, ''in some areas we won't have any topsoil left to conserve.''
After a recent trip to inspect flood damage in Iowa, Senator Jepsen said that ''soil and water conservation is a national priority, maybe directly behind the defense of this nation. . . . The agricultural production and potential of our land is our single greatest resource, and the responsibility for caring for our agricultural land is properly centered in Washington.''
Jepsen said that after years of heavy erosion of Iowa's rich cornfields, ''where we had 8 to 12 inches, right now I can show you places with a quarter inch of topsoil left.''
Jepsen said he believes farmers should be free to farm their own private property as they wish, ''unless what they do harms their neighbor's land.''
Jepsen favors the Reagan administration's plan to ''target'' critical areas for special attention. But he predicts that, instead of allowing the USDA to ''take targeting money from its overall budget,'' the Senate and House Agriculture Committees ''will be asking for the allocation of new funds.''
House Agriculture Committee chairman E. (Kika) de la Garza (D) of Texas says it is contradictory for the Reagan administration to ''keep insisting that soil conservation is a top priority and yet reduce the funding and rely instead on individual farmers to do all the work on their own.''
During a break in committee hearings, Mr. de la Garza warned that ''unless individual farmers and individual parts of this country do that which is proper and needed for our soil and water in the national interest, then the government will have to step in with some form of mandatory action.''
Cross-compliance ''to link the individual farmer's care of his land to assistance from the government,'' de la Garza said, is a good idea coming at a bad time, ''when most farmers are out of funds and completely fed up with government rules and regulations.'' But unless current voluntary programs become more effective quickly, de la Garza explained, ''we would have to come to government programs where you can qualify only if you use good conservation practices.''
A senior congressional staff member working closely with farm issues said that increasing government intervention is inevitable. ''Whether this century or early next century,'' he said, ''without major changes, you will cross a line where you will never be able to restore the productivity and fertility of America's soils, because they will have deteriorated past the point where it is economically feasible to rebuild them.''
Along with many experts, this congressional aide blames economic pressures, not farmers. ''The topsoil of the country is being depleted under present farming practices,'' he explained. He said cutbacks in federal conservation spending, combined with ''government price support programs which penalize farmers who practice good soil conservation management,'' can only make a bad situation worse.
This aide considers ''enforcing cross-compliance as a requirement for price supports'' a necessary but difficult next step toward saving US soil. For farmers, he explained, ''cross-compliance raises the concern that the farmer will lose control of decision making. . . ''
R. Neil Sampson, executive vice-president of the farmer-based National Association of Conservation Districts, expects that farmers will need to surrender some traditional independence.
''Clearly we have a national commitment to protecting individual property rights,'' he explained while eating a restaurant meal which he said brought far more return to the waitress serving it than to the farmers who supplied the food. ''But,'' he added, ''none of these (rights) are absolute. Support for private property rights in cities is as strong as anywhere, but we've learned that certain rights have to be limited to keep people from shooting at each other.''
''Out of self-defense the regulation and limitation of blatant land abuse has to come,'' Mr. Sampson said.
Sampson, a former USDA soil scientist, said, ''We can build topsoil quality rather than lose it.It is doable - and doable at a profit.'' Doing the job right , he explains, requires a public commitment to ''invest in productivity rather than focusing on consumption.''
Sampson says degraded soil quality is just one symptom of public attitudes that have allowed a deterioration in the nation's basic infrastructure - including highways, railroads, and sewers. He says that ''this nation, in the public interest, should be encouraging the investments that build resistance to economic shock, that keep our infrastructure strong.''
Norman Berg, former head of the USDA's Soil Conservation Service, now an adviser to the private American Farmland Trust, is equally concerned. He says, ''It is an urgent situation when one-third of our really good cropland is suffering net soil loss, with some soil eroding at twice or three or even 10 times the tolerable limit (of five tons per acre per year).'' Damage has increased, he says, because ''we apparently led the public to believe that the dust bowl problems had been solved, that once you put soil and water conservation practices in place you can walk away and leave them.''
Instead, Mr. Berg explains, ''a soil conservation program requires constant maintenance.'' He anticipates a trend toward long-term government contracts with landowners to avoid paying to repair land several times over.
Berg pointed out that the USDA has earmarked 17 million acres of highly erodable land which should be permanently retired but is instead periodically replanted because there is no means to control the use of this private land.
Without controls to prevent poor farming practices from ruining more land, Berg warns, ''We could see other countries capture our ability to produce agricultural products more efficiently, just as has happened with automobiles and televisions.''
He says any solution requires politicians to make long-term commitments despite the political disadvantage that ''anything we start now in '82 is not going to have much of a payoff until the next century.''
Former Agriculture Secretary Bergland insists that any commitment to conservation must begin with ''eliminating government support for soil practices which do not support conservation objectives.'' Saying that under current policies farmers can qualify for government loans ''to plow up virgin grasslands to grow wheat,'' Mr. Bergland adds that ''under the law, farmers are entitled to credits and federal price supports even when they are breaking every environmental rule in the books.''
Bergland supports the use of cross-compliance regulations as ''the stick side'' of a soil conservation solution. But he insists there must also be ''the carrot side'' of increased financial support for farmers. Bergland argues that helping farmers pay the costs of carrying out a soil conservation program, backed up with a 10- or 20-year contract to maintain the benefits, ''is a cheaper and better way to invest public money'' than coming in later to bail out bankrupt farmers and rebuild ruined land.
Whatever the best strategy turns out to be, it may need to be applied nationally to be truly effective. An Iowa State Uni-versity agricultural economist, Earl O. Heady, points out that individual state measures run into both economic and political problems. He says state-level controls push up crop production costs in the state that uses them, putting it at a disadvantage compared with other states.
Wisconsin's farmland preservation act, Iowa's soil conservancy law, and emergency Colorado action to prevent plowing up fragile grasslands may lead to similar action throughout the country. But with only five years' experience or less for most such attempts to legislate better soil practices at the state level, the majority of states are waiting to see more results before acting. Further reading ? The Global Two Thousand Report to the President of the U.S. - Entering the 21st Century. Pergamon Press. 200 pp. $30 (hard cover), $9.50 (paper). Paper editions by other publishers also available. Building a Sustainable Society, by Lester R. Brown. W. W. Norton. 433 pp. $14.95 (hard cover), $6.95 (paper). The Future of American Agriculture as a Strategic Resource. The Conservation Foundation. 1717 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. 291 pp. $11.50 , plus $1.50 shipping. Soil Conservation Policies, Institutions, and Incentives. The Soil Conservation Society of America. 7515 NE Ankeny Road, Ankeny, Iowa. 50021. 330 pp. $6. Farmland or Wasteland, by R. Neil Sampson. Rodale Press. 422 pp. $16.95.
The Cropland Crisis (A Resources for the Future report). Johns Hopkins University Press. 274 pp. $27.50 (hard cover), $10.50 (paper). Farm and Food Policy: Issues of the 1980's, By Don Paarlberg. University of Nebraska Press. 338 pp. $16.50 Soil Erosion: Its Agricultural, Environmental, and Socioeconomic Implications, A survey by a panel of experts, January 1982. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. 29 pp. $2.50. Write to CAST, 250 Memorial Union, Ames, Iowa 50011.