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The Wall Street Journal
Friday, September 21, 1984
Uncle Sam, Super-Sodbuster
By James Bovard
Farm topsoil may be eroding faster than it did
Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. In 1934, the U.S.
Agriculture Department estimated that farm soil was eroding
at the rate of roughly 3 1/2 billion tons a year. Now, after
50 years of federal soil-conservation programs, the
department says that soil erosion totals six billion tons a
Millions of acres of fragile grasslands have
up in recent years, thanks largely to federal farm handouts.
The Agriculture Department is paying for the idling of good
farmland while simultaneously bribing farmers to sodbust low
quality, highly erosive land. (Sodbusting means breaking the
topsoil on previously unplowed land.) In addition to
threatening farms, erosion is also polluting our rivers,
filling our dams and causing more than $1 billion annually in
off-farm damage, according to the Conservation Foundation.
Even Congress recognizes the contradictions
Agriculture Department commodity and conservation programs.
The House and Senate recently passed separate
cross-compliance measures to prohibit federal subsidies for
farmers who sodbust highly erosive land in the future. Though
the anti-sodbuster rule may not be enacted this year, soil
conservation probably will be a big issue in 1985, when the
four-year life of the current farm bill expires.
The federal government has spent more than $18
soil conservation since the New Deal, and is now spending
almost $1 billion a year allegedly to curb erosion. But most
federal conservation spending has only helped farmers
increase their crop productivity, or has gone for
conservation measures on land with little or no erosion in
the first place.
Conservation is one of the biggest smoke screens
agricultural policy, and is routinely invoked to justify
giving money to almost anyone living outside the city limits.
The General Accounting Office (GAO) examined the Resource
Conservation and Development Program and found that
"conservation" money was being spent for producing food
dishes for a dog pound, building a gun rack for a sheriff's
office, constructing an indoor swimming pool, and preparing a
feasibility study for a dairy business. The American Farm
Bureau estimated in 1981 that "less than 5% of the total Soil
Conservation Service budget [$622 million this year] is
currently being utilized to finance erosion control measures
on cropland with an excessive erosion problem."
A 1981 Agriculture Department study found that
conservation spending was better targeted to problem areas,
three times as much erosion could be prevented for no
additional cost. Excess soil erosion is usually defined as
anything over five tons per acre per year. Some 90% of
water-caused (sheet and rill) erosion comes from only 10% of
the cropland. Yet, while congressmen clamor for more money
for conservation, they refuse to target existing spending on
the problem. Federal conservation dollars are doled out
according to political clout, not environmental need.
The Agriculture Conservation Program last year
200,000 farmers almost $200 million supposedly to reduce
erosion. But the money was handed out on a first-come,
first-served basis, with little distinction between farmers
who owned highly erosive land and those who did not. GAO
found that almost half the money went for normal crop
rotation, leaving land fallow, and planting hay for livestock
-- routine practices designed to increase productivity. Last
year, the Agriculture Conservation Program gave out 23,000
checks to farmers for $50 or less, including checks for $3
for routine purchases of grass seed and fertilizer. Every
president since Harry Truman has tried to slash this
mislabeled program, but Rep. Jamie Whitten (D., Miss.),
chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and the
so-called Permanent Secretary of Agriculture, has
Much of the conservation aid and advice government
provides is of little value. GAO reprimanded the Soil
Conservation Service in the 1970s for providing farmers with
overly complex, elaborate conservation plans that farmers
disregarded. Sen. Roger Jepsen (R., Iowa), chairman of the
Senate Subcommittee on Soil and Water Conservation, complains
that only four or five of the Agriculture Department's 26
separate conservation programs have been given a thorough
evaluation, and that many of the programs "remain unexamined
at any level."
Since most farm profits come from government
(federal agricultural spending far exceeded net farm income
in 1983), some farmers pay more attention to Washington than
to their own soil. Farmers qualify for federal handouts
partly according to how many acres of each subsidized crop
they planted in recent years. A 1982 study by H. Krauss and
R. Allmaras cited in the Journal of Soil and Water
Conservation found that some farmers till highly erosive land
at a loss to avoid losing acreage credit for future farm
subsidies. Even Agriculture Secretary John Block, reflecting
the discomfort among administration officials about his
agency's contradictory programs, concedes that the
Agriculture Department "encouraged farmers to tear up the
cover crop on erodible soil ahead of schedule to provide a
A soon-to-be-published department study found
high-erosion areas tend to have more acres in Agriculture
Department commodity programs than low-erosion areas, and
that farmers dependent on Farmers Home Administration loans
have higher erosion rates than farmers who borrow from
commercial sources. President Reagan's decision Tuesday to
forgive part of the government loans outstanding for
struggling farmers will not help the nation's soil.
Federal disaster payments and subsidized crop
reduce the costs of crop failure, thereby encouraging farmers
to produce on low-quality, highly erosive land. Until the
program was curbed a few years ago, some farmers would
sodbust poor-quality grasslands solely to qualify for federal
disaster payments when their crops failed -- as they expected
No one knows exactly how many fragile acres
plowed up because of perverse federal incentives. Between
1977 and 1982, almost four million acres of poor-quality land
were sodbusted. Sen. Bill Armstrong (R., Colo.) estimates
that the "Great Plowout" is continuing at a rate of 700,000
acres a year. Many of the newly plowed acres are born-again
cropland that the Agriculture Department paid farmers to
retire into grassland in the 1940s, in response to an earlier
Several farm lobbies, including the National
and National Farmers Organization, believe the answer is to
pay farmers not to produce on their most erosive land. Sure
enough, the House has passed a bill to pay farmers $225
million to convert cropland into grassland once again. A
similar Agriculture Department program is already under way.
But, this reflects the old "pay-them-no-matter-what-they-do"
approach to farm policy.
The premise is that farmers must be bribed to do anything and
everything, including follow their self-interest.
Actually, while government programs have almost
thrown billions to the wind, many farmers have voluntarily
installed conservation measures. The American Farmland Trust
reports that the vast majority of farmers chose a
conservation measure "with the clear expectation that it
would lead to lower operating costs." Only 21% of farmers
polled said federal aid was the primary reason for adopting
one conservation practice instead of another or none at all.
GAO has chided the Agriculture Department for neglecting
research into the cause and effects of soil erosion. If the
case for a certain conservation measure was better
documented, there would be less need to bribe farmers to
protect their most valuable asset.
The real problem is that federal price-support
encourage farmers to plow up more land than is necessary.
Richard D. Siegel, an Agriculture Department deputy assistant
secretary, says "there is a direct connection between the
degradation of the fragile soil and the wheat price
supports." The federal target price for wheat is $4.35 a
bushel and the market price is about $3.39. Despite a glutted
market, farmers have plowed up millions of new acres of
low-quality land to harvest lucrative federal subsidies.
Highly erosive land is usually much less productive
low-erosion land, and provides less return on investment
(labor, seeds, fertilizer, etc.). Without high price
supports, total acreage planted would decrease, and the least
productive, most erosive land would tend to be the first
idled. Taking 12 1/2 million acres of the most erosive soil
out of production would, according to the American Farmland
Trust, cut sheet-and-rill erosion almost a third nationwide
-- far more than all of the Agriculture Department's feeble
conservation programs combined.
But those efforts go on, without effective aim.
of Maryland agricultural economist Bruce Gardner says
conservation programs "cannot hope to distinguish
production-promoting practices from conservation practices."
GAO notes that lists of accomplishments for conservation
programs "have been in terms of activity levels -- how many
wells were dug, miles of fence installed or acres of land
placed under permanent vegetative cover -- instead of the
conservation results of those activities."
Our agricultural policy is sacrificing the land
to buy farmers' votes. Government conservation programs have
been case studies in how to spend the most money with the
least benefit. The best solution to many of our farm problems
is to abolish the Agriculture Department programs that cause
Mr. Bovard is a Washington free-lance writer.
The Wall Street Journal
Copyright (c) 1984, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Tuesday, October 9, 1984
Letters to the Editor: When Farmers Break New Ground
James Bovard's "Uncle Sam, SuperSodbuster"
page, Sept. 21) explains only part of the reason government
policies led to the changing of grassland into marginal
cropland. An important factor was world-wide inflation in the
There are few good investments in times of double-digit
inflation. Land is potentially one because it has an
intrinsic value and at the same time can produce a cash
return. Other investments of intrinsic value such as gold or
art can not. For this reason there was a great interest in
buying Eastern Colorado ranchland as well as other land. For
those who were interested in a return on investment instead
of a livelihood, there was the opportunity to turn
$100-an-acre ranchland into $300-an-acre cropland with one
pass of the plow. Of course, the farmer-ranchers who were
living in Eastern Colorado had not been stupid. Most of the
useful cropland had been sodbusted prior to 1960.
Now that inflation is under (temporary?) control
of farmland is falling, but it is falling too late to save
the rangelands of Eastern Colorado.
William M. Selenke
Mr. Bovard displayed his ignorance of the facts
stated farmers plow up more of their sod to reap lucrative
federal subsidies. If Mr. Bovard were earning $2.75 an hour,
would he call it a lucrative federal subsidy if the
government paid him an extra 75 cents an hour?
That is the position wheat farmers are in when
overproduce. All of agriculture has been penalized for
efficiency during the past 30 years, while labor has been
paid more for the efficiency created by capital investment.
Realized net farm income declined from 6.9%
income in 1945 to 0.78% of national income in 1983. Do we
have less agricultural production than we had in 1945? Of
The prices received have been so low for so
many years the
only resort has been to produce more. The man earning a
minimum wage finds another job if he can. His wife finds a
job. They get food stamps. The farmer produces more. How else
can he afford to buy the products of the high-paid
blue-collar workers? Did Mr. Bovard check to find out if the
"lucrative" federal subsidy has improved the sales of
James Bovard's piece bothers me because it is
that has been a concern to me for over 45 years, but I did
not just talk about it. In '73 we put our money where our
mouths were and bought a run-down farm. We worked closely
with the Soil Conservation Service. With their help we
reduced our soil loss to near zero. For our efforts we won
two conservation awards. Today it is a productive farm. It is
regrettable that Mr. Bovard did not get out of the library
and onto the land where the real story is to be told.
The Wall Street Journal
Copyright (c) 1984, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Friday, October 12, 1984
Letters to the Editor: How Politics Erodes Soil Programs
We were glad to see James Bovard diagnose the
Federal soil conservation programs (editorial page, Sept.
21). Mr. Bovard is right when he charges that the
Congressionally-created price support and credit programs
administered by the Department of Agriculture have often
posed disincentives for farmers to care for their soil
properly. Soil and water conservation remain important
concerns. Thus, Congress appropriates almost $1 billion a
year for conservation activities by the Department. Mr.
Bovard is right also to point out that in the past these
funds have not sufficiently reached the areas with the most
It would be wrong, however, to suppose that
the USDA has
created these problems. Since this Administration took office
in 1981, we have proposed changes, only to have our actions
stymied by a recalcitrant Congress.
In 1983 the Administration initiated a five-year
to target an increased share of total conservation and
financial assistance funds for soil and water conservation to
areas most needing erosion control and economies in water
use. Our aim was to raise this share by 5% each year until
1987, when 25% of the technical assistance and cost-sharing
funds would be targeted to areas with the worst problems.
Despite the fact that targeting clearly was controlling
erosion and reducing inefficient irrigation water use faster
and on more acres with the same Federal dollars, Congress
this year ordered that from 1985 on, no increase in targeting
with the present level of funding should be attempted beyond
the 10% already achieved! Congress felt heat, of course, from
constituents in non-targeted areas who were fearful that
"their" traditional conservation funding was in jeopardy. So
Congress, not the USDA, is the main obstacle to having soil
and water conservation funds deal with the worst areas first.
Mr. Bovard gives the two Houses of Congress
passing separate anti-sodbuster bills, but he fails to
explain why the legislation now seems to be dead for this
Congress. The Senate, with strong support from the
Administration, passed its version nearly one year ago. The
House did not pass its version until last spring, making a
main part of it, however, a new $225 million payment program
for farmers to retire cropland. Senators on the Joint
Conference Committee pressed ahead with the sodbuster
provision but laudably refused to attach to it yet another
costly new farm program. The impasse killed the sodbuster
bill. A paid acreage retirement program may well have a place
in 1985 farm legislation if the legislation is designed to
remove the present incentives for over-production and for
bringing marginal land into production.
Hopefully, all Members of Congress who share
Administration's interest in sound soil and water
conservation programs will read Mr. Bovard's piece and take
it to heart, since they are the ones who can do something
about the problems described.
John B. Crowell Jr.
Department of Agriculture