Farm subsidies could finally be on the chopping block.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently acknowledged that corn and ethanol "subsidies need to be phased out" over time. And on a swing through
On the right, Sen.
This is good news. Agricultural subsidies cost taxpayers more than $15 billion each year, and until those subsidies are eliminated, farming in America will never be sustainable.
Times have changed since
Over the last two decades, the nation's appetite for food from "sustainable" farms has grown immensely. Sustainability is a buzzword, but at its optimum it aspires to maximize the benefits of farming while minimizing its negative impacts. Americans are starting to demand such practices — and they're willing to pay for them.
Consider the rise in organics. Organic food is the fastest-growing segment of the American food industry, accounting for an estimated $23 billion in sales in 2009. Adoption of organic farming is also on the rise. Between 2002 and 2008, organic cropland increased by 15 percent annually, on average. Three in 10 Americans buy organic products each week.
Or look at farmers' markets. When the
Concerns over farm runoff polluting the
At its core, true sustainability has an essential economic component: The practices of sustainable farmers must be able in turn to sustain the farmers. In other words, sustainable farmers must be able to succeed without agricultural subsidies. Mounting evidence suggests this is possible. Maryland farmers can survive without subsidies. In Maryland, for example, nearly two in three farmers did not collect any subsidies over the 15-year period ending in 2009, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
Consider the experience of those farmers who have eschewed conventional farming techniques. A recent study by the pro-organic Rodale Institute, which has been conducting a "side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic agriculture" since 1981, shows identical or nearly identical yields of corn and soybeans over the period.
If yields are similar, what about costs? According to a 2002 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives, after the Gallo Wine Co. switched to sustainable practices for raising some 6,000 acres of its wine grapes, the company found over time that it "was producing yields equivalent to those produced by its previous chemical methods but at a lower cost per acre."
As for subsidies, look at America's best-known sustainable farmer, Joel Salatin. The co-owner of Polyface Farms in rural Virginia, Mr. Salatin describes himself as "beyond organic" and was featured prominently in Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma." He is a hero to many small- and medium-sized farmers across the country — not just because he produces excellent pork, chicken and beef, some of which is sold to nearby restaurants, including Chipotle, but also because he refuses to accept agricultural subsidies.
If Mr. Salatin's beyond-organic approach brings to mind farming practices that might look familiar to our great-grandparents, his unsubsidized success also evokes farming policies this same generation would recognize. After all, widespread farm-subsidy programs have existed only since the 1930s. Our great-grandparents might have forgotten all about these programs if — as planned — Congress had allowed subsidies to end.
I leased an organic garden plot in