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One way to get Big Agriculture to clean up its act

Ray Gaesser farms 6,000 acres of corn and soy in Iowa and has been practicing no-till farming, an environmentally beneficial practice, for decades. In recent rainy years he has also started planting cover crops, which reduce runoff but create extra expense. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

This month, I set out to discover whether what we think of as “Big Ag” is cleaning up its act.

What’s to clean up? There’s widespread agreement that, as industrial agriculture has intensified over the past 75 years, concentrating on relatively few crops and dramatically increasing yields, it has also polluted waterways and degraded soil. But we’ve also seen increased focus on such practices as no-till farming and cover cropping, which mitigate or even reverse that damage. How widespread are those practices? Are they having an impact?

I found out. I wrote a column about it. It was boring.

So I scrapped that draft, and I decided to write a different column. Because what’s interesting about these conservation practices is that they raise the possibility of constructive change in one of the most contentious issues in agriculture: government subsidies.

First, though, you should know that, yes, Big Ag is at least beginning to clean up, but adoption of conservation practices still has a long way to go. No-till (growing crops without plowing up the soil) is used on about 38 percent of the acreage of America’s four biggest crops but doesn’t seem to be increasing. (Corn is holding steady; soy has ticked down.) Fertilizer use remains stubbornly high. Cover cropping (growing crops over the winter or at fallow times so the soil isn’t bare) inspires enthusiasm and wins converts — it’s the Bernie Sanders of conservation practices — but as of 2012, the first year the USDA tracked it, it was used on less than 5 percent of crop acreage.

Not all practices are appropriate for all farms, of course, and many of the practices being implemented are too new to be reflected in USDA data. But I found general agreement that farmers are increasingly focused on these issues and that conservation, particularly in the face of climate change, is important to them.

There. Aren’t you glad I spared you the 1,200 words?

Let’s talk, instead, about money. If conservation practices are to be implemented more broadly, somebody has to pay.

For those of us who don’t wake up in the morning worrying whether 6,000 acres of corn and soy will pay the bills, something like cover cropping is a no-brainer. For Ray Gaesser, who does wake up worrying about those 6,000 acres — the ones he farms in Iowa — it’s a harder calculation.

Gaesser is a believer in the importance of conservation. He first tested no-till in the 1970s, and he was at virtually 100 percent by 1993. Between that and his other water-management strategies (terracing, for example), he kept his farm essentially erosion-free. But then, sometime around 2010, it started to rain. “We’ve had four inches of rain in an hour,” he said. “Those are 500-year rains, and now we have them every year.”

He started cover cropping. But planting cover crops on 6,000 acres is a huge expense. At $37 per acre (the average cost, according to Rob Myers, a University of Missouri agronomist...

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