By Ethan Smith
If we want clean water we need to pay farmers to clean it up.
What? Yes, let’s pay farmers a premium over the current farm subsidy program to help keep our rivers clean! That sounds crazy right? Well it isn’t, let me explain.
The farm bill and its subsidies are currently clean water’s worst enemy. The farm subsidies began with their heart in the right place. They help save American farmers by guaranteeing their crops with insurance. So if something bad happens on the farm like a flood, the farmer still gets paid. I can support that as a concept, however every piece of legislation has some unintended consequences especially when there is finance involved.
In this case the unintended consequences of the farm bill and it’s crop guarantees is rivers with excessive silt contamination and high nutrient loading, leading to toxic algae blooms, poor fish habitat and crappy fishing.
So how does the farm bill lead to these poor fishing conditions?
Let’s say a farmer has some land in a floodplain that floods one out of three years. It wouldn’t make sense for him to plant that land under normal free market conditions because the profits from the two years of successful growth would be wiped out by his losses every third year when it floods. So in theory, he would most likely leave them as wetlands. But in our warped incentive world he doesn’t care because every third year when that part of his land floods he collects insurance money from the government and gets paid anyway. So he doesn’t have to worry about flooding. Either way he makes money.
So that farmer plows under anything and everything he can plant. More land equals more money for him because there is no risk to him planting a wetland with crops even if it floods. It’s a win win situation. Drive over any bridge and there is a good chance that there is farm land adjacent planted with crops that is clearly in the flood plain, the farm subsidy at work.
So how can we change this?
It’s pretty simple, we don’t take away the subsidy. We provide positive incentive to farmers in the form a greater subsidy for the wetland and riparian habitat. We actually pay them a premium over the crop value to put back wetlands. So yes, we are paying them every year instead only every third or fourth when it floods, but who cares if the result is healthier rivers, it’s worth it. We pay them market price for what that land would produce in crops because at this point the benefits of a clean river outweigh the small contribution of those areas to the global food basket. Yields are getting very high so we don’t need as much land as we used to anyway.
So seriously, it’s that easy. We pay the farmers to put back the wetlands they’ve plowed under for the last decade or more. People will do anything if it means they make more money. Wetlands and riparian habitat just need to pay better than crops.
How do we do this?
Simple, we set up a private public cooperative agreement to provide an organization and financial vehicle to directly support wetland and riparian habitat restoration funding directly to farmers who participate in the program. We could fund it with private money and it wouldn’t need to turn into another giant public sinkhole of monetary bickering. Similar public-private cooperatives already exist in most places in the form of flood control conservancy districts. Put back the wetlands, rip out the field tile and the rivers will naturally be filtered instead of the flooding and high nutrient loading and silt contamination we are seeing now.
I understand that there are vehicles currently in place from organizations like Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, the USFW and state Divisions of Natural Wildlife, etc., that try to restore wetlands, but none of these make it so clearly financially beneficial to the bottom line of a farmer’s business or try to turn the table on the farm subsidy.
It needs to make sense for even the biggest industrial farmers, like Warren Buffett.
Wetlands and riparian habitat are the most important factor to ensure the future of clean rivers and fish habitat in cold and warm water river environments. Heck, even the ocean, if you consider this might help reduce the dead zone at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi.
We need to ensure that the financial incentives to farmers are stacked in favor of clean rivers.
Ethan Smith Gink & Gasoline www.ginkandgasoline.com firstname.lastname@example.org Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!