Rewarding farmers as 'stewards'

Election-year politics and a persistent farm crisis have elevated national discussion of farm policy to a level not seen since drought, debt, and low prices struck America's heartland in the 1980s.

This year's multibillion-dollar emergency-spending bills for agriculture only intensified an ongoing battle in Congress, where opponents of traditional farm subsidies squared off against supporters of an expanded federal safety net for farmers and ranchers.

Soon, the new president and Congress will begin preparations for the 2002 farm bill, the most important opportunity in a decade for major reform of agriculture policy.

One proposal on the table, the Farmland Stewardship Initiative, could unite warring factions in Washington by building a stronger safety net for our nation's farmers, while providing many benefits for the tax-paying public.

Instead of paying farmers and ranchers to produce (or not produce) particular commodities, they would be paid for land-management practices that reduce flooding, improve water quality, enhance conservation, promote local recreation and tourism, and reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases.

FSI emerged in response to years of repeated and devastating flood losses in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and the Canadian province of Manitoba. Faced with billions of dollars in damage, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Manitoba launched the International Flood Mitigation Initiative (IFMI) to develop basin-wide strategies to deal with future floods.

IFMI formed a working group of government, agriculture, and conservation interests to identify ways to foster flood mitigation on private lands. Following the conclusion of their efforts last year, the group presented the Farmland Stewardship Initiative to Congress and FEMA.

FSI starts with the premise that farms and ranches produce much more than food, fuel, and fiber. They also provide land-stewardship services - flood mitigation, protection of water quality, management of wildlife habitat and biodiversity, outdoor recreation, and tourism, to name a few. These services benefit all Americans, yet the market undervalues such services. As a result, agricultural commodities are in surplus, while producers' essential services of land stewardship are in deficit. FSI would compensate farmers and ranchers directly for their stewardship of private lands.

Given limited federal discretionary spending and diminishing public support for farm subsidies, the initiative optimizes taxpayer dollars. FSI would support practices that store, slow, or absorb water on the land to help reduce flood damages downstream. These include no-till production, restoration of grasslands, wetlands, woodlands and riparian areas, and construction of small-scale water-storage and retention areas.

FSI's benefits would not end with flood-damage reduction. Measures that manage runoff from snowmelt and rainfall also improve water quality, reduce soil erosion, conserve habitat, and create local recreation, tourism, and economic development opportunities. They can even enhance the capacity of soils and woodlands to capture carbon that would otherwise add to greenhouse gases.

To prevent the adverse economic impact on farm communities of taking good land out of production, the initative targets unproductive and flood-prone land first. FSI would pay farmers who voluntarily place marginal, unprofitable land into alternative uses such as wetlands, woodlands, or grasslands.

Farmers could then focus time and resources on their most productive farmland. This approach, known as multifunctional or conservation agriculture, provides producers and the public with a better return on investment.

Federal farm programs have evolved into a complex patchwork of overlapping and often conflicting objectives and requirements.

This alphabet soup of programs increases costs and administrative burdens, and creates unnecessary confusion and paperwork for the producer. It also makes it difficult to tackle problems like flooding which extend beyond individual farm and ranch operations.

FSI would therefore test a watershed approach for cooperating farmers and ranchers. It would also reduce complexity and increase flexibility through "one-stop shopping," combining multiple programs into a single plan for the producer.

FSI can serve as a model for the 2002 farm bill. FEMA Director James Lee Witt and a bipartisan group of seven senators have recognized FSI's potential to shape national agricultural, disaster, and conservation policy and have lent their support.

FSI marries sound public policy with smart politics. By linking federal payments to services that benefit the whole tax-paying public, FSI can build a political constituency among suburban Americans who look to rural areas for recreation, open space, and other amenities.

FSI can also transform a landscape that now helps feed the world into one that also reduces flood damages, safeguards environmental quality, increases recreation and tourism opportunities, and reduces the risk of climate change.

* Allen Olson, a former Republican governor of North Dakota, serves on the International Flood Mitigation Initiative. Brad Crabtree is program coordinator of the Consensus Council, which facilitated development of the Farmland Stewardship Initiative.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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