Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Cheap food costs us water

Yesterday, I put research into agricultural subsidies on my "To Do" list. This morning I moved it to the top of that list. Here's what I found:

farmstead and silos
farmstead and silos
Photo by J. Harrington

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has a profile of Minnesota agriculture. A separate data base, developed by the Environmental Working Group, notes "USDA subsidies for farms in Minnesota totaled $17,132,000,000 from 1995 through 2012." That was an 18 year period, so the average USDA subsidies paid to Minnesota farmers was almost $100,000,000 per year. If the average number of farms was about constant at about 75,000 per year for that period, the average subsidy per farm was almost $13,000 per year, or for an average farm, more than $35 per acre per year.

So, if my math is correct, some farmers, those who claim that they should be paid for abating water pollution, need to be be reminded that the rest of us pay water and sewer bills and property taxes for storm water management, and haven't been getting a free ride for years. (When my Better Half had a consulting business, at which I was employed, there was no annual federal subsidy nor insurance for our "crop" of services.)

late season corn
late season corn
Photo by J. Harrington

Preparing and following water quality conservation plans should be a mandatory requirement to qualify for USDA or state agricultural subsidies. How else can we meet water quality standards for fishable-swimmable waters? Phosphorus discharge limits are already included in a number of the discharge permits for metro wastewater treatment plants. According to Metro Council Environmental Services,
"The Seneca, Metropolitan, Empire, and Eagles Point WWTP’s individual permits include 12 month moving average phosphorous limits of 1.0 mg/L. The Hastings WWTP’s individual permit includes a schedule to attain compliance with a final 12 month moving average phosphorous limit of 1.0 mg/L. The Eagles Point, Empire, Metropolitan, and Seneca WWTP’s have not reported a phosphorus limit violation within the past five years. The current permit for the Hastings WWTP does not have an assigned phosphorous limit."
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy has summarized long-standing agricultural water pollution issues in Minnesota and nationally. Minnesota Public Radio, as part of an ongoing series of reports on Minnesota water issues, has an overview of agriculture's contribution to water quality problems in Minnesota. It includes mention of linking farm subsidies to accountability for agricultural pollution abatement.
"We've had forty years of voluntary cleanup goals and now the conversation has moved toward not necessarily regulation, but some accountability mechanism," Russell [Trevor Russell, Watershed Program Director for Friends of the Mississippi River] says. "It sounds like a false distinction, but it's not. There are substantial financial incentives in our agriculture system in the form of direct crop subsidies and farm programs. We have a substantial public investment and virtually no strings attached to that money. So you do your part for clean water," he says. "If not, there is an accountability mechanism, maybe a fine. We have $7 a bushel corn and $14 a bushel soybeans and you can't afford a buffer to stop runoff from running into the stream?"

pasture land
pasture land
Photo by J. Harrington

The Minnesota River is the major tributary to the Mississippi in Minnesota. It's water quality status is described in a helpful summary prepared by the UMN Extension. So, major wastewater treatment facilities have phosphorus limits, urban areas have storm water permit requirements and agriculture finally has several demonstration projects and updated buffer requirements. Do you see anything wrong with that picture?

Indian Summer

By Diane Glancy 
There’s a farm auction up the road.
Wind has its bid in for the leaves.
Already bugs flurry the headlights
between cornfields at night.
If this world were permanent,
I could dance full as the squaw dress
on the clothesline.
I would not see winter
in the square of white yard-light on the wall.
But something tugs at me.
The world is at a loss and I am part of it
migrating daily.
Everything is up for grabs
like a box of farm tools broken open.
I hear the spirits often in the garden
and along the shore of corn.
I know this place is not mine.
I hear them up the road again.
This world is a horizon, an open sea.
Behind the house, the white iceberg of the barn.


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