Program helps farmers who help the environment

MINBURN, Iowa (AP) -- Rick Hartmann's organic vegetable farm did not produce a single bushel of corn or soybeans, which account for the bulk of the federal crop subsidies paid to farmers in Iowa and across the Midwest.

MINBURN, Iowa (AP) -- Rick Hartmann's organic vegetable farm did not produce a single bushel of corn or soybeans, which account for the bulk of the federal crop subsidies paid to farmers in Iowa and across the Midwest.

In fact, he has never signed up for a single farm program -- until now.

Hartmann is one of more than 21,000 farmers and ranchers who have signed up this fall for the new Conservation Stewardship Program, which aims to reward producers for how they farm rather than what they produce.

The program would create a new class of government subsidy recipient, but it also responds to criticism that traditional subsidies harm the environment.

Hartmann's squash, lettuce and other crops do not qualify for normal crop subsidies.


But, if the U.S. Department of Agriculture accepts his applications, he could get payments for measures he has taken to improve the fertility of the soil and to produce ladybugs and other insects that will prey on the pests that could harm his vegetables. The farm is rimmed with 20-foot strips of grasses and flowers -- various mixes of native prairie plants -- that are designed to harbor the beneficial insects.

In a recent e-mail to his customers, Hartmann joked that he was ``putting the farm on the dole.'

Grain and cotton farmers have dominated traditional subsidy programs, but the Conservation Stewardship Program is available to producers in all 50 states no matter what kind of crop they grow, and farmers in every state except New Jersey wound up applying.

Producers applied for payments on an estimated 32.9 million acres, far more than the 12.9 million acres the USDA can accept under the 2008 farm bill.

The agriculture department doesn't have a breakdown yet of the types of farms that make up the total, and officials are unsure of the exact acreages included in many contracts. The total includes at least 12 million acres of grazing lands and pasture and 1.9 million acres of forest.

Texas led with applications for 4.7 million acres, followed by Nebraska with 4.3 million and New Mexico with 3.3 million.

Nebraska had the most applications, 2,683, followed by Texas, Missouri, Minnesota and Iowa.

Alaska has 24 applications covering 714,083 acres -- more acres than Iowans offered.


Some 1,099 farmers in Iowa applied for the program on 596,031 acres, mostly cropland.

The outpouring of applications shows there is interest in this type of program. That will in turn help build political support for eventually expanding it, said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

``You're going to see political support for this from exactly those areas of the country where there's not high participation in commodity programs,' Hoefner said. ``That's going to be very significant over time.'

But in a vast country where more than 300 million acres are planted to crops each year, the money will go only so far.

While the Conservation Stewardship Program is an improvement over conventional commodity subsidies, it will be tough to get Congress to increase its funding, given the size of the federal budget deficit, said Craig Cox, Midwest vice president for the Environmental Working Group, which maintains a widely searched database of farm subsidies. He said lawmakers need to tighten conservation requirements on farmers who receive traditional subsidies.

Exactly how big the payments will be will be determined by how much grazing land and cropland the USDA puts in the program. Nationally, the payments are supposed to average $18 an acre, but payments will be larger for crops than for grazing land.

The applications will be ranked according to the environmental benefits the farmers' practices will provide. Farmers picked for the program will get payments for five years. There will be a chance to continue the payments after that, but the producer would have to take some additional conservation measures.

The applicants include conventional farmers such as Bart Schott, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat near Kulm, N.D.


He's trying to get 1,200 acres of land in the program. He already reduces soil erosion on his land by limiting his tillage, but he has proposed to do more if the conservation payments will cover his extra costs.

He has offered to plant grassy strips around the wetlands on his land, a move that provide wildlife habitat but cost him some crop revenue. He also is proposing to install new nozzles on his pesticide sprayer to prevent the chemicals from drifting.

``The main thing I've got to worry about is that I don't cut my revenue stream too close,' he said. ``We want to be good stewards and all that, but it has to make sense, too.'

Hartmann grew up on a conventional farm, but he and his wife, Stacy, tried a decidedly different approach, making a farm out of an old farmstead, the type that's often razed.

The hay barn that was once falling apart has been turned into a packing shed, complete with a large walk-in cooler. In the barn they pack the boxes of produce they deliver to customers in the Des Moines area.

The barn is flanked by the vegetable patches, which is separated by grass strips that prevent soil from washing away.

He thinks the Conservation Stewardship Program could help farms like his.

``There's a lot of tax money that goes to support farming in this country,' he said.


``I'm hoping we might evolve a little bit more toward the European model where the consuming public really wants to support local agriculture, small and mid-size farms and keep that farming and food culture an important part of their national heritage.'


Information from: The Des Moines Register,

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