In 1997, after a decade of historic progress cutting soil erosion and polluted runoff from farmers’ fields, things were looking up for America’s soil, streams, lakes and rivers.

That historic achievement was driven by a 1985 federal law that required farmers to put conservation practices in place on their most vulnerable cropland in return for the billions of dollars of income and insurance subsidies they were getting from taxpayers. The “Highly Erodible Land Conservation” provisions of the 1985 Food Security Act required farmers to fully implement an approved soil conservation plan by 1995 on cropland that was determined to be “highly erodible.” USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) completed a comprehensive evaluation of the effect of those so-called conservation compliance provisions in 2004. ERS concluded that conservation compliance reduced soil erosion on highly erodible cropland by 331 million tons a year — a 40 percent reduction between 1982 and 1997.44

Unfortunately, those gains were short-lived. Enforcement of conservation requirements weakened and in 1996 went off the rails altogether when Congress made an abortive push to phase out farm subsidies — and with them the conservation requirements. The phase-out of farm subsidies turned out to be a mirage, and Congress immediately returned to its old habits — plowing billions into farmers’ hands through ad hoc disaster payments and bringing all the farm subsidies back with a vengeance in the 2002 farm bill.

The only thing that turned out to be real was the phase-out of enforcement of conservation requirements. The result has been a decade of lost progress and growing problems.

Destructive Fencerow-to-Fencerow Production

From 1997 to 2009 the federal government paid out $51.2 billion in income, production and insurance subsidies to farmers in the five Corn Belt states. Iowa alone got $16.8 billion.45

On top of that, taxpayers shelled out another $18.9 billion dollars to subsidize expansion of the corn ethanol industry over the same period.46 And in 2007 Congress went even further, passing a misguided energy bill that in effect mandates production of still more corn ethanol — topping out at 15 billion gallons a year by 2022 — more than tripling the amount produced in 2006.

Federal policy now is driving fencerow-to-fencerow farming again — just as it did in the 1970s — with the same perverse incentives that the 1985 conservation compliance law sought to blunt. Those incentives are even more dangerous today as damaging storms become more and more frequent in the Corn Belt.

It doesn’t help that most of Iowa’s cropland is farmed by people who don’t own it. As renters, they have less ability to apply conservation practices to land they don’t own and less reason to care about the long-term health of the land. They must push the land as hard as they can to make money in the face of escalating rental rates. In 2009, about 53 percent of Iowa’s cropland was rented, and the percentage is even higher in some other Corn Belt states. Out-of-state ownership increased from 6 percent in 1982 to 21 percent in 2007. Almost half (48 percent) of farmland in Iowa is operated by only 20 percent of all the farmers in Iowa, and between 50 and 99 percent of that land is rented.47 Moreover, in 2009 Iowa farmers paid about $2.5 billion to rent 13 million acres of cropland.48