Water quality is worthy of farm subsidy

AS WE SEARCH high and low for billions in new funds needed to restore the Chesapeake Bay, it's worth noting that hundreds of millions are already potentially available.

Better yet, those dollars are available to spend on agriculture, the single largest source of bay pollution, which is considered the hardest source for which to finance a cleanup.


Farmers don't have industry's deep pockets, the built-in ratepayer base of sewage plants or the ability of both to pass on added costs to customers.

The trick is to redistribute the federal subsidies farmers receive -- to shift them from largely subsidizing grain production to paying for enhanced water quality.


A promising new program, and growing concerns about global competitiveness and the environment, all make a shift thinkable for the first time.

But first some background about how farmers' bread is currently buttered by us taxpayers. If you think the tax code is complicated, you should look at federal programs that pay farmers for everything from drought losses to creating wetlands.

EQUIP, WHIP, CRP, CREP -- the acronyms could fill this column. The Oilseed Program, Direct Counter Cyclical Payments, Total LDP-like Grazing Payments, Livestock Indemnity -- the list goes on. No wonder the common wisdom in agriculture is "First, farm the programs, then the farm."

The Brobdingnag of farm subsidies --more than $100 billion nationally between 1995 and 2002 -- sends checks to farmers who grow eight crops, mostly grains.

The government sets a target price at so much per bushel. In years when farmers get less for those commodities than the target, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sends a check to make up the difference.

This can mean big bucks even in a small farm state like Maryland -- more than $300 million here between 1995 and 2002. The last few years it has averaged $30 million annually, and about $65 million in the Chesapeake Bay's six-state watershed.

These payments may help keep farmland in production, and therefore out of housing developments, but otherwise they run counter to a healthy environment.

They reward production only, leading farmers to be liberal with pesticides and fertilizer -- the latter a source of bay pollution. If prices are low, maximizing bushels per acre means a bigger government check.


And the bulk of this support goes to a small fraction of farmers who own and lease big acreages. A Web site maintained by the Environmental Working Group ( shows that Maryland's dozen largest recipients received more than a million dollars each between 1995 and 2002.

This year, for the first time, a fundamentally different alternative to supporting farmers, enacted by Congress in 2002, is making its debut on the national scene.

It's called the Conservation Security Program. Unlike other USDA "green" programs that reward farmers for planting strips of vegetation to intercept pollution or create wildlife habitats, CSP doesn't take land out of food production (which turns many farmers off to traditional green payments).

CSP pays them for practices that improve water quality, such as efficient fertilizer use or planting winter "cover crops" to sop up pollution before it enters waterways.

Cover crops on millions of acres are a key to a clean agriculture around Chesapeake Bay, but farmers need about $25 an acre each year to afford planting them.

For now, CSP's only a glimmer of what it can be. The Bush administration -- pushed by politically formidable agribusiness interests that benefit from production-biased subsidies -- has ensured it's barely funded and hamstrung. Current definitions adopted by the USDA exclude every farm in Maryland as too small.


But experts on agriculture and the environment -- such as Mike Heller, who runs a farm and education center for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation -- think trends favor CSP's growth.

A recent claim by Brazil challenging U.S. crop subsidies as unfair competition was upheld by the World Trade Organization, Heller points out.

While the WTO decision was narrow and technical, it's bound to be just the first of many global challenges to our production-oriented subsidies.

It has sparked new interest in shifting farmers to "green payments" such as CSP, which don't violate WTO trade rules, even among conservative groups such as the American Farm Bureau, according to Heller and others.

Additionally, the Midwest, bastion of grain production, is learning that its fertilizer runoff is causing a Chesapeake-like "dead zone" downstream in the Gulf of Mexico. Its farmers, too, will be looking for water-quality funding.

The potential of green payments has also caught the interest of the panel looking for ways to finance a Chesapeake restoration.


Heller cautions, "You can't just pull the rug out from under grain growers. You need a phaseout of [production] subsidies."

But CSP, he says, could within five years supplant the old subsidy system, bringing tens of millions of dollars annually to bay water quality as it helps farms stay profitable.

There are flaws. It's not clear how we would monitor farmers' water-quality performance under CSP -- or how to reward farmers for actual performance, not just for adopting a certain green practice.

But if that's the biggest problem we had with agriculture and environment, hooray. It's worth letters to your federal representatives urging them to make farm subsidies work for all farms and for all who want clean water.