BIG AG VERSUS CONSERVATION
By Kirk Schnitker
Go on to the website of a large Ag special interest group. After reading a bit one might think the group is pro-conservation. Look deeper and into the groups policies and you will likely learn otherwise.
Conservation minded folks have a topic of almost no discussion that makes them uncomfortable. The subject is farmers and there is good reason why we who hunt, fish and want to protect and enhance the outdoors are reluctant to talk about farmers. I too will parse my words here and qualify what I say. I personally know lots of farmers, grew up with them in Southwest Minnesota and know all kinds. Over the past few years I hear the term "Big Ag" as an enemy of conservation. It’s a term that easier is easier to use when we complain about drainage, tiling, runoff and general disdain for conservation. I've come to believe it’s a good term for us to use for I believe most of the Ag side anti-conservation sentiment is fueled by big money and that money is Big Ag related businesses, seed companies, fertilizer and chemical companies, tiling related manufacturers and installers, implement manufacturers and dealers, mega food producers, crop and meat buyers and packers, ethanol producers and on and on and on. If we for a minute set aside the interests of farmers themselves we realize the immense size and power of these Big Ag super powers. There are incredible, powerful Big Ag interests with money to burn, fleets of lobbyists in Washington and here at home and an agenda that more often than not is contrary to those of us sportsman conservationists. A few years ago I attended an event called Ag Night at a national political party convention. Tickets were limited and I was figuring it to be some nice gala affair with a few hundred people and good food and drink. I learned I was so wrong. Ag Night, I learned, cost Big Ag several million dollars and included thousands of people, a national rock and roll band, VIP events, great food and drink and an overall demonstration of the strength of this mammoth special interest. I really don't know if there was a farmer in the house but politicians and corporate types there were from wall to wall. I walked out amazed yet depressed a bit for I knew why Big Ag so often gets its way and all too often stomps on our conservation objectives.
Over the past couple of years I have had some run ins with mouth pieces for Big Ag. The first was when I was serving on Governor Pawlenty's Conservation Legacy Council with a bunch of really smart people who almost all were conservationists and included water people, wildlife people and farmers. The council received testimony from different people and special interests and all had one message. That was to protect our water, enhance the environment and increase and protect wildlife. That was until those Big Ag mouth pieces testified from the two largest Ag lobbying and special interest groups in Minnesota. What they said unapologetically was we don't agree with the council's apparent objectives, we oppose your efforts to increase funding to meet your objectives and we have more wildlife than what we need. Their in your face approach was a wake up call to me and ought to be a wake up call to you.
This last year at the MN DNR Annual Roundtable, where hunt and fish and forest and such kind of people get together, there was a forum for presenters to address general soil and water issues. Here again were the two Big Ag lobby mouth pieces sitting on the panel of speakers boldly denouncing conservationists concerns and arrogantly making their demands. These were: we want more government subsides, we want less regulation on our land uses, the DNR and conservation interests should not be allowed to buy more land for conservation purposes and we don't want more wildlife. Friends and fellow conservation minded folks this is what we are up against and they are formidable opponents. The might and power of these Big Ag interests is all so apparent in the U.S. Congress. U.S. Senators and Congressman receive boat loads of cash from these lobbyists and corporate funded special interests and ladies and gentlemen that's why our waters are a mess and wetlands a fraction of what they used to be. It's why our National Ag policy is a jumble of contrary objectives where one program promotes wetland drainage and another pays to preserve lands. It's why we hand out trillions in land subsides at embarrassing amounts to individuals and corporate landowners. I'll say it. Special Big Ag interests of accumulated corporate greed control what's happening and you should be outraged and tell your elected officials how you feel. Our prairies, streams, wetlands, wildlife and your pocketbook depend on it.
Don't think for one minute all this exhibition of power is at the national level or that it stops with elected people. It doesn't. It infects our elected people at the state legislature and our county boards are more often than not run by people with the same aforementioned Ag agendas. Then we have water and soil people and more of the same. Now let's look at the DNR. A few years back deer hunters in Southwest Minnesota created the SWMN Deer Coalition. This entity was a product DNR deer management that was keen on keeping deer numbers suppressed. Consensus among SW MN deer hunters was that deer numbers were too low and far below what they were in the 80's. Pleas to the DNR to make changes were ignored. When pushed the same reason came back again and again from SW area wildlife managers to St. Paul wildlife managers and that was Ag interests want the herd numbers kept low. "Crop depredation" was given. Of course, this is a minority view but one expressed by those powerful mouth pieces who intimidate the wildlife managers. In response, however, one farmer said, deer crop depredation is a joke "squirrels eat more of my corn than deer."
Don't get me wrong. I neither scorn nor feel any undo admiration for farmers. They selected their occupation and provide a commodity we need. Having grown up rural I have worked in a milk barn, bailed hay, hoed beans, picked rocks and lived some of the farm life. I now know and have known many farmers. This said I have not walked in their shoes nor they in mine or yours where we have opportunity and adversity as well. I neither want farmers over regulated or subsidized. As landowners they have been subjected to unconstitutional regulations but also public subsides that range from reasonable to ludicrous. I know many who have sacrificed monetarily to improve their land so wildlife can thrive and water can be cleaner. This is a wonderful thing but public subsidies often accompany such improvements and this is fine with me. What's not fine with me is when those certain powerful Big Ag interests take their positions that overwhelm mine. Enough said here. There are good and bad farmers and landowners as I see it, but as I see it the bad ones have way too many accommodating politicians and bureaucrats kissing their collective butts and that's what frosts mine!
This being said, farmers and policies of our government ensure that we have premium, low cost food. This is a wonderful part of America. It, however, has come at a cost, as all things do. Some costs are not only good but necessary for it makes governance and legal sense to compensate landowners for many things that relate to their land. I believe one area that deserves expansion is involving payments to land owners for buffer strips adjoining wetlands and waterways. Many but not all programs such as aspects of CREP, CRP, RIM and more are positive and must be considered when assessing the impact of farm policy. We must demand solid return for our tax dollars that go to these landowners.
In Minnesota we have an Ag position that illustrates how nonsensical yet powerful and effective platforms of certain Ag interests can be. This involves the no net loss polices. In a nutshell, these are policies adopted by county boards that disallow and impede acquisitions of private lands for conservation purposes. The reason they give? Because such sales by willing landowners to the government or conservation groups drives up the price of land and takes land off the tax rolls. What a pile of pig turd logic. Farmland in Southwest Minnesota has been selling for $6,000 to $8,000 per acre in sales from one landowner to another. The truth is landowners are driving prices up all by themselves. Secondly, its true when the DNR, for example, acquires a new wildlife management area, the land is off the tax rolls but also know that those drain everything county commissioners who vote for these myopic policies also have constituents who hunt these public grounds, motel owners, restaurants, bars and more who benefit from hunter dollars. On top of that these counties are given handsome annual payments to offset some lost tax dollars. These are payments in lieu of taxes and arguably do not cover all the taxes that are lost, however that makes sense for most reasonable Minnesotans feel that for counties to have public lands is for counties to receive a benefit. Just as cities have parks, churches and other non-taxed property, they all represent a benefit to that city. It is possible that such non-taxed property can be a burden to counties however most feel that's plausible in some forested areas not in Big Ag country where the existence of rural public lands is nominal as compared to land that is tilled. Additionally, such land that benefits direct users also benefits farmers who enjoy it, use it, and who see it as a good thing. I know of no farmer who complained about an adjacent WMA. I know several in such situations and they rather enjoy the fact that its there.
This topic begs a question. Who is Big Ag? Is it the rank and file farmer who works double overtime hours or is it the big chemical and seed companies or the ethanol lobby or enormous food processors? I do not have the answer to this but of all the many farmers I know none object to the acquisition of lands for outdoor public use. On the other hand, the lobbyists for Big Ag entities scoff at such acquisitions. Could it be that their corporate dues payers know that if an acre is set aside for conservation it will no longer need seed, chemicals or implements each year to farm it?
We conservation-minded folks have many Ag friends. We must have good communication with farmers and some ag interests. They can be our friends and allies but we must know that out there among the world of agriculture is a well-heeled, powerful lobby that buys influence and manipulates bureaucrats. These later interests are not our friends. We are wise to be vigilant of their influence and to counter their aggressive anti-conservation ways. We must not fear them, as do many politicians and bureaucrats. Once we acknowledge their might we can better respond with our own and that might may just be more powerful. It was not Big Ag that passed the 2009 sales tax constitutional amendment for clean water and an improved out of doors. We did and we must remember that, face them down and demand improved stewardship of the land that will enhance much that has been lost.