More Corn and Less Conservation

“Raise less corn and more hell”
Mary Elizabeth Lease, 1890*

Mary Elizabeth Lease was one of the most passionate voices of the prairie populist movement of the late 1800s.  She hailed from Kansas, but her message burned through the populist movement up and down the entire Midwest.  This message took root the deepest in the farm areas and union halls of Minnesota, giving birth to the Farmer-Labor Party. This was Minnesota’s most successful third-party movement.

The movement gained significant political traction with the successful U.S. Senate campaign Henrik Shipstead in 1922.  It hit its zenith in 1930 at the beginning of the Depression with the election of Minnesota’s first and most productive third-party governor, Floyd B. Olson. This was a reactionary third-party movement that gained strength in the farming communities of Minnesota as a response to the economic abuses felt there from the banking, railroad and commodity trading interests. Due to its reactionary nature, it was a very eclectic mix with some extreme radicals like Mary Elizabeth Lease, who advocated for very socialistic policies to more moderates like Sen. Shipstead who by 1940 changed to a Republican for his last reelection as the movement began to fade in the face of World War II.

Nonetheless, this movement played a substantial role in laying the groundwork for President Roosevelt’s successful passage of the first major comprehensive federal farm bill in 1933, the New Deal Agricultural Adjustment Act. The law paid farmers subsidies not to plant portions of their field and to destroy excess livestock in order to reduce supply and stabilize prices. This law essentially laid the foundation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and future federal farm bills that have been regularly reauthorized every 5 to 7 years since.  That is until 2012 when, for the first time since 1933, the federal farm bill failed to receive reauthorization as required under its terms back in September. If Congress fails to act by the end of the year, there will be significant confusion in the farming industry and several programs will expire or revert back to older provisions passed in 1949.

It seems an ironic twist that our present-day large corporate agricultural interests are dependent on government subsidies developed as a response to a movement that was almost considered socialist in its infancy over a hundred years ago. The Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) did an analysis of what would happen if the farm bill were not reauthorized. Most the policies would revert back to provisions passed back in 1949 and result in minimum payments for commodities produced as opposed to the present-day dependence on subsidized crop insurance. In Minnesota, this will result in a substantial growth in the number of acres planted in corn and wheat. Substantially fewer soybeans will be planted because soybeans were not a price protected federal commodity in 1949. Also milk prices could double. The 1949 law requires milk to be purchased by the USDA at nearly double the recent market prices. Such high USDA purchase prices will result in the government driving up the price for commercial markets.

More importantly for the environment will be the loss of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and other conservation incentives which was not part of the 1949 Farm Bill. IATP reports on its website:

“The adoption of conservation practices on private lands has been one of the success stories of agricultural policy over the past 25 years. Soil and water quality have benefited tremendously from the Farm Bill’s incentive programs for farm conservation, particularly the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which currently protects about 31 million acres of fragile agricultural land. Without new Farm Bill legislation, USDA could no longer contract with farmers for CRP and many other programs after December 31.”

This loss will compound the problem already occurring due to the high price of corn. During the last sign up period, Minnesota lost over 190,000 acres of land in CRP that did not reauthorize. That means 66% of eligible farmland was not reentered into the program. Not all this has been lost to cultivation, but it is unclear how the commodity incentives will impact decisions on these acres. This could result in a substantial reversal of any gains made recently on cleaning up the Minnesota River.

The unfortunate consequence of the failure to reauthorize the federal farm bill will likely be more corn and less conservation. It is fair to say that Mary Elizabeth Lease is probably rolling over in her grave.

* Minnesota: A History of the State by Theodore C. Blegen, University of Minnesota Press, page 387.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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