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Dennis Anderson: Farms vs. Wildlife
Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune
February 20, 2005 ANDY0220

University of Minnesota Professor Emeritus Richard A. Levins retired from that school's Department of Applied Economics in 2003. Growing up in Forida, Levins worked in extension farm management for almost 25 years. He moved to Minnesota in 1988 to teach economics and agriculture history. Most recently, Levins wrote the book "Willard Cochrane and the American Family Farm," (2003, University of Nebraska Press) with a foreword by John Kenneth Galbraith. Levins still teaches part-time at the university and consults and speaks on farm economics, farm management and related issues. In the interview below, Levins outlines the evolution of U.S. farm policy, its impact on farmers, wildlife and the environment.

Q: What is your general assessment of farming in Minnesota?

A: Farming here has slowly evolved into a system that has relatively few very large farms that are often plagued by prices so low they have trouble being profitable. We also have evolved into a farm system in Minnesota that relies heavily on government payments to be economically sustainable.

Q: One effect of this evolution is that the state's farmland is less diverse and that wetlands and other wildlife habitats have been lost.

A: That's correct. There has been a shrinking of biological diversity on the land and increasing concerns for environmental problems resulting from farm policy. It's easy to lay these problems at the feet of farmers, saying it is entirely their responsibility. But I've had the privilege of speaking first-hand with some of the famous Minnesotans who have shaped U.S. farm policy in the past 50 years, and I can say there's much more going on here than any individual farmer could possibly hope to influence.

Q: Who are some of the Minnesotans who shaped current U.S. agricultural policy, and what roles did they play?

A: Present policy was heavily influenced by the thinking of Orville Freeman, Willard Cochrane and Robert Bergland. Bergland and Freeman were agriculture secretaries. Cochrane -- like me, retired from the university -- was agriculture advisor to President Kennedy, and at age 91 is still active in these issues. Also, of course, Hubert Humphrey had significant influence.

Q: Did the thinking of any of these men include land and water conservation?

A: Not nearly as much as we think about these issues today. The goals of a diverse landscape weren't among their ideas, at least not at the time. I will add that Cochrane has since become a strong environmentalist as an agricultural economist, and believes U.S. agriculture policy has been wrong, continues to be wrong and is unsustainable.

Still, when our basic agriculture policy was shaped in the 1960s, the primary goals were protecting farm income, competing in a global economy and keeping domestic food prices relatively low.

Q: Your recent book about Cochrane and the family farm explores Cochrane's misgivings about U.S. farm policy. Are Cochrane's beliefs that current farm policy isn't sustainable -- either economically or environmentally -- correct?

A: Professor Cochrane has become an advocate of some fairly radical changes in the way we farm. The changes he would make would, in addition to other things, address in a very direct way the environmental problems that have accompanied U.S. farm policy.

My view is somewhat different. I have come to see farmers as people who care deeply about the environment and the communities in which they live. At the same time, they're just like everyone else, in that they must make business decisions in an economic environment that is beyond their control. Our policies have moved us in a direction that is causing some unintended problems, among them the lack of a diverse landscape.

Q: Ultimately, are the interests of conservation and modern farming in conflict?

A: Sometimes, but not always. In my view, most farmers would qualify as modern conservationists. What needs to be changed is not so much attitudes as the system we have created in which farming occurs.

Q: How could that happen?

A: It would have to happen with some serious and aggressive changes in federal farm policy. As policy stands now, we tend to pass conservation legislation but not fund it. Meanwhile we continue to fund programs that lead us in the direction we're going. It should be no surprise we're getting what we pay for.

Q: Is what is happening today on Minnesota farmlands -- generally speaking -- so bad, environmentally, that, in the end, change will be forced on the system?

A: At some point we have to face the fact that it is often cheaper to prevent environmental problems than to fix them once they've occurred. I'd like to see prevention become a bigger part of our federal expenditure and cleanup be less.

Q: Certain farmers today who own land that traditionally has been untillable, can -- through the use of chemicals and genetically modified crops -- plant that land with the reasonable expectation it will be profitable relatively quickly, assuming that government support payments are made. This puts at risk some of the relatively few remaining unbroken wild lands we have.

A: Correct. What we have are situations that sometimes make sense for individuals but might not make any sense at all in the larger picture. That individual farmer you speak of, expanding his or her production of grain crops, today is not competing so much with a neighbor as with a farmer, say, in South America. The only way that battle can be won is by being the absolute lowest-cost producer in the world, which -- by the way -- is unlikely for an American farmer, or by depending on continued government supports -- which is also appearing to be less and less likely. Unfortunately, that farmer oftentimes does not have the option of government supports to use the land in ways that would meet some of our environmental goals. That's where the problem lies.

Q: The current farm program has a number of conservation components, some of which, as you suggest, have not been fully funded. That aside, was this program structured in a way that induced farmers toward conservation, at least in certain instances? Or are there better ways that conservation should be incorporated into the next farm bill?

A: There are two ways you can do this: Consider conservation as an add-on to a commodity program, which is basically what we have now. Or put conservation first and let the commodities be the add-on. I think until we put conservation as a high priority, we won't see much progress.

Q: Is it reasonable then for conservationists to have hope in Minnesota?

A: For a Minnesotan to be discouraged makes no sense at all. As I said earlier, Minnesota has been the leader in farm policy. I don't see why Minnesotans would want to give up that position.

Dennis Anderson is at [email protected].
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