Farmers Choosing Mammon Over Conservation

By David L. Brown

As we have predicted here the ongoing ethanol mania, now magnified by rapidly rising food prices and impending Third World famine, is causing farmers to plow up fragile lands that have been protected by conservation programs.

According this article in yesterday’s New York Times,

“Thousands of farmers are taking their fields out of the government’s biggest conservation program, which pays them not to cultivate. They are spurning guaranteed annual payments for a chance to cash in on the boom in wheat, soybeans, corn and other crops. Last fall, they took back as many acres as are in Rhode Island and Delaware combined.”

The farmers are giving up modest payments they have been collecting, many for decades, to keep land in the Conservation Reserve Program. Most of that land is better served by being kept out of production because it is prone to erosion. The conservation acres also provide an environment for wildlife such as pheasants and ducks. But now that those big shiny dollars are beckoning as ethanol and biodiesel plants turn food into government-subsidized fake fuel, farmers who once were happy to take handouts to keep fragile acres from under the plow are even happier to rip up that precious soil and plant corn, soybeans or wheat.

Writes the Times’ David Streitfeld:

Environmental and hunting groups are warning that years of progress could soon be lost, particularly with the native prairie in the Upper Midwest. But a broad coalition of baking, poultry, snack food, ethanol and livestock groups say bigger harvests are a more important priority than habitats for waterfowl and other wildlife. They want the government to ease restrictions on the preserved land, which would encourage many more farmers to think beyond conservation.

So not only does this “coalition” favor plowing up conservation acres, they even go so far as to recommend that the government ease restrictions to open up even more land to being pillaged in the name of Mammon, the false god of riches and avarice.

I don’t suppose there are very many left who remember the Dust Bowl Days of the 1930s when the practice of plowing up vast swaths of fragile land resulted in an ecological, economic and social disaster. The conservation programs of today are partly the result of that era, as well as the problems of over-production that stalked agriculture a few decades later.

I was born too late to witness the Dust Bowl Days, although I did see a minor resurgence in the early 1950s. It was quite a sight from our home in central Missouri one afternoon as an ominous red cloud loomed in the Southwestern sky. The cloud was composed of topsoil blown from fields in Oklahoma and southern Kansas. The next morning a thin layer of the red dust covered everything, the ground, trees, and even the floors and furniture inside our house.

Here is an interesting timeline showing some of the weather events of those years of heat and drought in my home state, as posted on the website of the Missouri Climate Center:

1930’s-40’s: Dust Bowl Years of the 1930’s and early 1940’s: Heat and Drought

In Particular: 1930, 1931, 1934 1936, 1940, 1941 for drought and 1934 and 1936 for summer heat and drought

1934: July. Hottest month on record for state: Avg. temp. 86.1°; Hottest Summer on record for state: Average temperature: 81.9°

1936:Driest summer for the state: Average total precipitation for Jun, Jul, Aug.: 3.78”

1950’s: Drought Years of the 1950’s: Heat and Drought

In Particular: 1953-57 for drought and 1953 and 1954 for summer heat and drought. This was a drier period than the 1930’s and early 1940’s.

1951: Ice storms crippled the entire states’ transportation system on Christmas Eve.

Flood on Missouri River in June and July, on Mississippi River in April, May and July caused more than $0.25 Billion damage in Missouri alone.
1953: Driest year on record. State average precipitation: 25.35”

1954: July 14: Hottest temperature ever recorded for Missouri: 118° in Warsaw and Union.

Memory is short and history is long, so it is no surprise that the lessons of that period have already been forgotten by most. And would it matter even if those lessons were still in the public mind? Probably not, because the love of money trumps good intentions. Farmers are no different from anyone else when it comes to that. When there isn’t much at stake, doing the right thing yields warm and fuzzy feelings … but as soon as there is a buck to be made it’s Katy Bar the Door!

The present agricultural environment has much in common with historic “bubbles” such as the “Tulipmania” that swept over 17th Century Holland. Bubbles are times when the normal pursuit of money turns into a runaway cycle of economic madness. There are many other examples, including the stock market frenzy of the 1920s that led to the Great Depression, the tech stock bubble that burst a few years ago, and even the housing bubble and resulting credit crunch that is currently plaguing the world economy.

Just as none of those bubbles ever came to anything good, the rapidly inflating agricultural bubble is surely doomed to disaster as well. As long as money is to be made, those fragile acres will be put to the plow. Nevermind the pheasants and ducks; nevermind the soil washing and blowing away from the land to pollute the water and air; nevermind that precious topsoil is the most important link between human beings and the Earth that supports us; nevermind all of that because the clarion call of money is drawing us like pigs to the trough.

What is going to happen cannot be good. It could be merely disastrous, or actually calamitous. We are overdue for a period of “heat and drought” as recorded in the Missouri timeline shown above for the 1930s and 1950s. What then? Will we once again witness clouds of dust so thick they block out the Sun? Will crops wither and die in the field? Will farmers experience another boom-to-bust cycle that will drive tens of thousands of them into bankruptcy and despair? Probably. The question is not whether such things will take place, but just how serious they become.

In view of the fake fuels scandal, climate change, and looming famine, the outlook is grim indeed. Mammon beckons.

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