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A farmer's 'come to Jesus' moment

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

tractor_andrewstawarz.jpgNPR ran a great story the other day called “One Family, Two Views on How to Run Iowa Farm.” Lavon and Craig Griffieon, a farming couple from Ankeny, Iowa shared their concerns about the economic pressures they feel being part of modern day agriculture and the environmental impacts of their farm management choices.

Here are some highlights of the story:

"I kind of had a 'come to Jesus' meeting with myself one day out in the field," LaVon Griffieon says. "I was telling these kids that we were doing things right, and herbicides and pesticides helped us feed more hungry people. I was down in the pasture with them, and a little boy leaned down, and he was going to take a drink out of the stream. And I said, 'Don't take a drink out of that.' He looked at me like, 'Why can't I drink the water?' And I thought if we were doing a really good job, he could drink the water, 'cause I'm sure his grandparents drank the water."

As Lavon Griffieon alludes, using chemicals on the farm has not always been the Griffieon way.

When I was a little kid, we farmed without chemicals and without fertilizer, and our yields for corn was 50, 60, 70 bushels, something like that," Craig Griffieon says. "Then in the '50s and '60s is when fertilizer and chemicals come about. So now our yields run about 160 to 180 [bushels]. Then it comes down to a dollar-and-cent deal to make a profit."

LaVon Griffieon isn't happy that her family is using the chemicals, and she intends to change it.

"I say there's a better way," she says. "We need to look past our own yields and our own bottom line and look at the big picture. Being a good Dutch-German guy, you've got to prove it to Craig, and you've got to make the bottom line work out for him and pencil it out for him. And we're going to get him there one of these days."

LaVon’s and Craig’s concerns really spoke to me as an environmentalist working to lessen the unintended environmental impact of agriculture on the environment. Their concerns bolstered my belief that farmers and environmentalists are really more alike than they are different.

Most environmentalists make the economic case that many environmental practices are not only good for water and air quality and wildlife habitat, but are also good for the long-term fertility and productivity of the soil and livestock. In addition, environmentalists understand that the majority of farmers are small to medium-sized operations that are often more worried about being able to pay all the bills let alone invest in environmental projects. That’s why the Farm Bill provides several billion taxpayer dollars a year as well as technical assistance to farmers in the form of voluntary programs to help them do right by their farm, their family, and the environment.

But some environmental problems have no economic costs to the individual upstream, only costs to the environment and to folks downstream. This is not a situation unique to farming. This widespread problem, called “environmental externalities,” happens to farms and to drycleaners and to steel mills when there are costs to the environment, which are not affecting the business.

When the solutions to these environmental problems are not in the economic interest of the farms, dry cleaners, or steel mills causing the problem, the public expects the government to establish basic, minimum environmental standards that all such businesses adopt.

Regulation is not a dirty word. It’s a basic agreement between producers and the public. In agriculture, a few regulations at the federal level include pesticide rules which all farmers must follow to protect themselves, their workers, and the environment. There is also a “conservation compliance” rule, which requires some farmers who receive farm subsidies to reduce soil erosion or to protect wetlands. For the most part, agriculture is exempted from the nation's most important environmental laws, including the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

At the state level, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, have moved from voluntary nutrient management programs to solve the “dead zone” problem in the Chesapeake Bay to mandatory laws requiring farmers follow a nutrient management plan. These plans help farmers achieve a reasonable yield goal while reducing environmental loss of fertilizers and animal manure to the environment.

Basic environmental standards are not meant as an insult to farmers, many of whom consider themselves stewards of the land. They are merely the statement of societal expectation that farmers do what they can to improve their farm operations and the environment even if sometimes, it’s not in their immediate economic self-interest. We expect that of dry cleaners and steel mills. Is there any reason we shouldn’t expect that from farms? If farmers were willing to regard environmental standards and regulations in this light, that would be one “come to Jesus meeting” this environmentalist would love to be a part of.

Photo by Andrew Stawarz.