Less is more for Europe's farmers

As EU leaders meet Wednesday to cut farm subsidies, a turn to'agri- environmental' efforts.

In the end, perhaps it comes down to this: If you've already got too much butter, why not pay farmers for buttercups instead?

As European leaders put the finishing touches this week on their new $48-billion-a-year farm subsidy policy, a new philosophy is increasingly shaping their work: Less is more.

Rather than reward farmers for growing more food than the market can bear, the European Union (EU) is paying them instead to be caretakers of the countryside.

Transforming Europe's peasants, yeomen, and high-tech agro-entrepreneurs into state-subsidized park keepers, as the critics see it, is not universally popular. But on a continent where the post-World War II fear of food shortages has eased, and new concerns about the environment have arisen, "agri-environmental" measures are gaining currency.

And as overall subsidies are cut under the EU's new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which forces farmers to be more efficient and internationally competitive, "we also have to pass the message that we are ready to pay the costs of environmental services too," says Frank Fay, an agriculture expert at EU headquarters in Brussels. "Just telling farmers to export more in a more competitive world is bad news for hedgerows."

And for village schools in England, and for country bakeries in France, and for the texture of rural life from the arid goat-strewn hillsides of Greece to lush dairy pastures in Holland.

The problem is stark. The EU has to reduce its farm subsidies not just because they are wasteful and keep food prices artificially high, but because offering them to the hundreds of thousands of farmers in future member states such as Poland and Hungary would bankrupt the system.

But the average European farmer, whether he is growing olives in Spain or wheat in Germany, depends on CAP subsidies for a vital 25 percent of his income. Abolishing payments is not an option; although only about 5 percent of Europeans work on farms, people are deeply attached to the cultivated landscapes that go with farming.

"The public wants to see green fields with cows grazing in them, surrounded by hedges," says Colin Pierce, who raises cattle and sheep and grows grains on his 400-acre farm in the west of England. "They don't want to see vast areas of arable land with sprayers going up and down."

The solution, EU planners have decided, is to make it worth a farmer's while financially to farm less intensively, to ease up on synthetic fertilizers, to graze fewer animals on the same land, to allow some fields to become marshlands, and otherwise encourage wildlife or beautify the scenery.

"The development of the role farmers can and should play in terms of management of natural resources and landscape conservation" is an "increasingly important objective for the CAP," said the European Commission, the EU's governing body, in Agenda 2000, its blueprint for the next six years.

In fact, the European country that has gone furthest down this road is not even a member of the EU. Switzerland denies any government aid to farmers who do not commit themselves to practices that improve the environment.

The CAP reforms that EU heads of government are expected to approve at their Berlin summit Wednesday introduce the stick of such conditions, and allow member states to withhold CAP monies from ecologically recalcitrant farmers. But most governments are likely to continue to prefer to offer the carrot of additional aid to compliant growers, as they have done since such aid was first brought in during the last round of CAP reform in 1992.

The results of this program have been mixed, and different European countries demand different things of farmers who seek agri-environmental grants. In Austria and Finland as much as 80 percent of agricultural land is covered by environmental contracts; in Belgium and Holland less than 1 percent of farmland comes under such plans.

Overall, the program has reduced the use of plant protection products in Europe by 15 percent, that of nitrogen fertilizers by 25 percent, and that of phosphorus fertilizers by more than 30 percent, according to Franz Fischler, the European commissioner in charge of agriculture.

Arthur Pullin, an organic dairy farmer near the English town of Gloucester, remembers how he was walking his fields one spring with an acquaintance who noticed the pastureland was bright with flowering weeds that would not have been growing there with conventional farming methods.

"He said to me, 'Do you know you could get paid for farming like this?' " recalls Mr. Pullin, who now earns $8,000 a year from the Countryside Stewardship Scheme for keeping his land pesticide- and fertilizer-free, and waiting until the ground-bird-nesting season is over before mowing his hayfields.

To bigger farmers, of course, $8,000 a year is "buttons" says Mark Heywood, owner of an impressive 1,400-acre spread not far from Pullin's holding. Mr. Heywood calls himself "an asset-based businessman rather than a farmer." But the idea of being paid to pay more attention to the countryside appeals just as strongly.

"If someone paid me 50,000 ($80,000) on my 1,400 acres to plant trees, clear footpaths, and put in hedges, yippee, I'd do it," he says. "Farmers are like all businessmen - they respond to market signals."

Twenty years ago, when the CAP was still designed only to maximize European food production, farmers were given grants to dig up hedges and drain their land in the interests of efficiency, and so they did.

Today they can get grants from the EU to plant hedges and waterlog their land in the interests of wildlife.

So they will, believes Pullin, if the sums they are offered really do compensate for the income they forgo. "If the direct payments under the CAP are cut, but they increase subsidies for environmental management, who's complaining?" he says.

"I think farmers will be changing their methods. They will do what they are paid to do."

"At the end of the day," agrees Mr. Pierce, "you have got to show a profit."

If that bottom line once depended almost exclusively on production levels, or on the size and efficiency of your farm, European growers today have to factor in an entirely new set of elements.

"Agricultural policy and social policy and environmental policy will become much more intertwined," predicts Heywood.

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