2000s Archive

Betting the Farm

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This past year, Matthew made $11 a bushel on winter wheat at mills in Kansas and North Dakota, at the time a four-dollar premium over commodity wheat. Organic flax sold for $19.50 a bushel, a premium of ten dollars.

Most mainstream economists and farm-state politicians look at the Stiegelmeier experiment as a quirky, barely viable enterprise in an ocean of commodity grain. But agricultural economist Tom Dobbs sees something else. A professor emeritus at South Dakota State University and a Food and Society Policy Fellow, Dobbs is convinced that the Stiegelmeier farm is a model for the future—not because it is idealistic or good for the land, which it is, but because it works on the most remote, improbable farmland in the nation. “We think of the Great Plains as a buffer. In good times, grain production should expand, in bad times contract. But with farm subsidies, instead of buffering, we have created permanent overproduction, and disaster payments just encourage production on marginal lands. What the Stiegelmeiers are doing is an entirely different approach, and they are not alone.”

Dobbs’s recognition of the unique character of farming on the Plains is much like the vision offered by John Wesley Powell in his explorations of the region after the Civil War. Powell argued that small family farms could never work on the Plains. The terrain was too harsh. Disasters weren’t freak incidents, they were constant. Rather than trying to force the western lands to accommodate farming practices developed in the deep soils of the Ohio River Valley, Powell advocated organizing lands on the edge of the 100th meridian into cattle farms, supported by diverse crops where the land was suitable, surrounded by large pastures—which is exactly what the Stieg­elmeiers have done. “The farms and ranches along the 100th meridian can be productive,” Dobbs says. “But federal policy should not promote cropping systems that don’t suit the ecosystem.”

For Dobbs, the current Congressional debate that focuses on limiting commodity payments to rich farmers is a distraction. “Of course, close the loopholes. But people will always find new ones. Caps may work for a short time, but people will always find a way to get around them.” What is lost in the caps debate, says Dobbs, is the opportunity to shift the entire paradigm of federal farm policy from subsidies and price supports to conservation, stewardship, and support for innovators like the Stie­gel­meiers.

He and others call the new approach “multi­functionality.” It is an idea that has been hidden and underfunded in different titles and sections of federal farm policy for more than a decade but has never been promoted as a unifying principle. Most farmers, including Matthew Stiegelmeier, have never heard of it.

Under current federal policy, farmers receive “direct payments” each year, no matter what crops they grow or how they grow them. A multifunctional approach would build on and rechannel those payments, along with other crop-support subsidies, toward sustainable social and conservation goals. “Instead of tying pay­ments to crops and yields, we should tie them to the services that farmers provide for the public.” In the past, “public services” has meant cheap food at the supermarket, but Dobbs believes it is time to rethink the whole idea. “Pay farmers to reduce synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Pay them to enhance wildlife, diversify their crops, build soil, and restore wetlands. Pay them to develop local mar­kets for their products, especially fresh food.”

Dobbs is skeptical about the ethanol boom. “I just don’t think it is an economically viable approach to our energy problems.” And he is suspicious as well of the long-term impact of converting thousands of acres of marginal land to the production of energy crops. “We may end up undoing decades of good conservation work if farmers are encouraged to take land out of uses that enhance conservation and put it into ethanol crops.” But in theory, he believes that using farms to support wind, solar, and other alternative-energy programs is well within the framework of multifunctionality. Those are the carrots.

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