The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policy affects the daily lives of people across our state. Paul Johnson is an organic market gardener and Kansas Rural Center policy analyst and advocate. Zack Pistora is chairman of the KRC board of directors and a longtime environmental lobbyist for the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club.
Recently, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly affirmed a deep-rooted belief about Kansas agriculture: “In Kansas, farming is a way of life and local Kansas farms are vital to our economy – they feed the nation and the world.”
This statement comes as no surprise to many and is backed up by the latest data from the USDA Economic Research Service, which ranks Kansas 3rd among states for most acres of farmland and 6th for most acres of farmland. crop and livestock sales. Kansas is also in the top 10 for exports of wheat, beef, soybeans, feed grains, corn and sorghum which mainly end up in Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China.
Less well known is the high cost that Kansans and Americans pay for an industrial farming system that is largely geared towards using Midwestern land to grow animal feed, raw ingredients for unhealthy processed foods, and fuel for agriculture. ethanol. Current land use does not prioritize the cultivation of healthy, edible food for local consumption, nor does it stimulate opportunities for the next generation of farmers and rural communities. Know that our biggest beneficiary of the land – the agricultural sector – (and not necessarily your average farmer, to be clear) is by far the biggest user of water in Kansas and arguably the biggest polluter of our ecosystems. water and soil (via concentrated nutrients, pesticides and agricultural runoff).
While these criticisms surely sound harsh, these bad circumstances are more systemic and not individual or personal. The good news is that our farmers, while still heroes of food production, can also be our heroes for the sustainability of our state and our planet. But the rejuvenation of American agriculture rests on one major piece of legislation: the US Farm Bill.
In Kansas, federal farm bills have by far the greatest impact on land use, cropping patterns, soil treatment, water use, nutrition, and the continued consolidation of farming. Farm bills are drafted and passed every 4-6 years, and congressional committee hearings prepare for the next farm bill in 2023.
Our current US Farm Bill, which Congress passed in December 2018, allocated nearly $100 billion to agriculture-related subsidies and programs. Kansas receives $1 billion to $1.5 billion annually for farm payments, which puts Kansas seventh in farm payments in 2021. These taxes add up and are not distributed evenly.
According to the farm payments watchdog, the Environmental Working Group, from 1995 to 2020, Kansas farm subsidies totaled $24.6 billion, more than 80% of which is spent on payment for produce and crop insurance ($13.3 billion for commodities, $6.3 billion for crop insurance, $2.02 billion). for disaster relief, $3.04 billion for conservation). Of the $13.3 billion for commodity payments, 88% of the profits went to 20% of Kansas’ 58,569 farms, leaving just 12% for the rest. As you might expect, those commodity subsidies in Kansas went mostly to wheat, sorghum, corn, and soybeans.
According to the farm payments watchdog, the Environmental Working Group, from 1995 to 2020, Kansas farm subsidies totaled $24.6 billion, more than 80% of which is spent on payment for produce and crop insurance ($13.3 billion for commodities, $6.3 billion for crop insurance, $2.02 billion). for disaster relief, $3.04 billion for conservation). Of the $13.3 billion for commodity payments, 88% of the profits went to 20% of Kansas’ 58,569 farms, leaving just 12% for the rest.
– Paul Johnson and Zack Pistoria
There are additional environmental and health costs with our current farming and farming reward system that are perhaps even more problematic. Let’s start with health. The USDA food plate is 50% fruits and vegetables, 30% grains (preferably whole grain), and 20% protein with a dairy side. The Farm Bill food subsidies are very different: 63% feed grains; 20% food grains; 15% sugar, starch, oil, alcohol; 2% nuts and legumes; and only 1% for fruits and vegetables. Kansas ranks 8th out of 50 states in adult obesity (35.3%), while one-third of Kansas children are overweight or obese.
The overall expenditures of the Farm Bill are 80% for nutrition programs (mainly food stamps – SNAP) and 20% for agricultural programs. According to the USDA, in 2018 the national average of SNAP-eligible recipients was 82%, while in Kansas it was 69%, making Kansas the 3rd worst state for ensuring food aid reaches to those who need it.
Ecosystem health also loses with the current staple crop subsidy. In the absence of conservation practices, cultivation of cropland results in the loss of approximately 5 tons of topsoil per acre per year due to wind and water erosion. Beyond this inherent loss of farmers’ most valuable growing medium, property, and critical habitat for soil microorganisms, this soil loss typically finds a way into our waterways. and our reservoirs, causing significant sedimentation and compromising our drinking water supplies. We find that barren crop fields contribute to higher runoff situations during heavy rains. In contrast, conservation practices such as cover crops, no-till, and grasslands retain soil moisture and allow water to slow down and infiltrate landscapes.
With climate change, extreme weather conditions such as droughts, extreme heat and wind, heavy rains and floods, wildfires, etc., will likely lead to further destruction of our soil ecosystems, as well as increased demand for or compromise of our water supplies – not to mention making farming more difficult. The agricultural industry is perhaps the most vulnerable industry to the effects of climate change. Kansas irrigators, who make up only a fraction of Kansas farmers (about 10% of acres and farms), use more than 80% of the state’s water. That’s more than is used by every city, town, and non-farm business in Kansas. combined.
Most of this water depletes the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate Kansas staple crops in western Kansas. As a result, many Kansas communities are looking down on decades of groundwater supply. We know that soil and water conservation go hand in hand, which is why the Farm Bill needs to put a lot more emphasis on conservation.
Farm Bill conservation programs are essential for improving soil health and reducing soil loss. Conservation reserve program contracts are 10-15 year arrangements to put the land in consistent grass cover and prioritize the highest environmental benefits, such as buffer strips over streams and creeks. There is now an expansion of the CRP Grasslands contracts in Kansas of 270,000 acres. (Kansas has 1.78 million acres in CRP). The Conservation Stewardship Program is for working farms to develop whole-farm soil conservation and improvement systems. The Environmental Quality Incentive Program focuses on specific conservation improvements.
Unfortunately, the CSP and EQIP are underfunded at the federal level. In 2020, only 18% of eligible CSP applicants in Kansas were funded and only 23% of eligible EQIP applicants were. In 2020, the CRP, CSP, and EQIP in Kansas totaled $200 million, while the State Water Plan fund in Kansas was $20 million.
Fundamental change is truly needed for the 2023 Farm Bill by investing in more sustainable farming practices (cover crops, crop rotations, managed pastures) to improve soil health for future generations while encouraging more farmers beginners and halting further consolidation of agriculture. The 2023 Farm Bill is expected to establish a five-year phase-out of specific crop subsidies and heavily subsidized crop insurance payments for those specific crops. In our capitalist free market economy, the federal government should not prioritize these specific crops (wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton, and rice).
Instead, Farm Bill conservation programs should be fully funded and serve as basic income support to farmers to improve soil health through greater diversity in crop choices and grazing opportunities. There should be limits on conservation support payments for larger farms and increased efforts to encourage beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. As this transition occurs, Kansas should develop a national food and agriculture plan to capture 10-20% of the $8.2 billion spent annually on food in Kansas while addressing the existing food deserts in rural and urban areas by encouraging more resilient and reliable local food. system.
A different Farm Bill with more emphasis on conservation could improve our food and agricultural system. Our farmers, our communities, our ecosystems and the world of Kansas will be better off.
Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. For more information, including how to submit your own review, click here.