How agricultural policy got into the business of conservation

I'm writing a report on different mechanisms governments or others might use to buy conservation services from farmers. That is, how they might go about paying farmers not to plant crops and instead establish grasses, legumes, or trees, or alternatively pay farmers to manage their farms in ways such that they do less environmental damage.

Feel free to rant in the comment section about your views on all this.

Anyway, in putting this together I stumbled upon this classic USDA report by Bowers, Rasmussen, and Baker that gives a fairly comprehensive history of agricultural support programs from 1933 through 1984.

It seems agricultural policy got into the conservation business very early on. This followed not from environmental concern (no surprise there) but from the Supreme Court ruling in the case United States v. Butler et al. (297 U.S. 1, January 6, 1936). From Bowers, Rasmussen, and Baker:
The Supreme Court's ruling against the production control provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act left USDA without a viable adjustment program. Moreover, the likelihood of overplanting for the coming year and depressed prices presented Congress and USDA with the problem of finding a new approach before the spring planting season. USDA officials and representatives of farmers recommended to Congress that farmers be paid for voluntarily shifting acreage from soil-depleting surplus crops into soil-conserving legumes and grasses. The Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, approved on February 29, 1936, combined the objective of promoting soil conservation and profitable use of agricultural resources with that of reestablishing and maintaining farm income at fair levels.
What provisions did the Supreme Court rule against? Well, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, signed in a period of rampant deflation and farm foreclosures, paid farmers to plant less acreage in an effort to reduce supply and increase prices. This was ruled unconstitutional because it was said to raise taxes on one group (processors of farm products) to pay another (farmers in exchange for reduced plantings). Tax receipts, they ruled, must be used in a manner that benefits the general public.

So, immediately following this ruling The Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act achieved the same goal by paying farmers not to plant, this time under the guise of conservation in addition to price stability. It was also financed using general funds rather than a tax on processors.

And there you have it. The tradition continues today with the Conservation Reserve Program.

In general, it is amazing how much modern policy mimics aspects of the early policies. Things did change a fair amount beginning around 1990. But as I've suggested earlier, I think it is quite possible that acreage reduction programs, conservation programs, set asides, and all manner of paying farmers not to plant, exerted a larger influence on overall production levels than paying farmers for what they did produce.

Update: I'm being a little too cynical here. This is the 1930s, with the hottest Midwestern springs/summers on record. (Yes, that's way hotter than the last decade, and no this does not mean the climate isn't warming.) There is massive soil erosion from dirt storms in the plains states (the Dust Bowl). Crop yields are the worst on record and, in 1934 and 1936, about 40 percent of the nationwide corn crop isn't even harvested. And prices are low due to the ongoing Depression. So, it was a good time to worry about conservation. It's a little odd that historians Bowers, Rasmussen, and Baker didn't provide at least a little more context beyond United States vs. Butler.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Holy cow! I'm following up on a comment that was deleted. That will be a tough act to follow.

    All I wanted to do was to point out that there's a huge, entrenched system of paying farmers to worry about conservation in the UK. And I don't really know anything about it. I spent a week at a farm in Wales once, it was about 40 acres and they got paid for keeping hedges, keeping different breeds, keeping wetlands, keeping land fallow, etc.

    You might want to do some digging there and see how that's working for them. :^) Certainly they have lots and lots of small farms, which I suspect they encourage somehow.


  3. Thanks for your comment ScottB.

    Yes, conservation is a big part of agricultural policy throughout much of the world. And it's getting bigger all the time. I don't think people realize that a remarkable share of pollution in the world comes from agriculture.

    Note that the deleted comment was jibberish. Literally. It looked like random words chosen from a dictionary, as if a computer wrote it. For now I am only deleting comments in extreme cases.


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