To grow or not to grow?

Anyone who hasn’t been asleep in a cave for 50 years knows the U.S. government pays farmers not to grow crops.

Formerly, the rationale for such programs was frankly admitted: By reducing supplies, the government keeps grocery prices high, pleasing farmers.

One might think that would be a political nonstarter, as there are far more grocery shoppers than farmers. But a rule of economics says that the smaller number of farmers can gain enough to make it worthwhile to lobby (some would say “bribe”) Congress to support such programs, while the couple of bucks in higher prices levied on each cart of groceries isn’t enough to motivate the average shopper to hire a competing lobbyist in Washington.

The farmers win.

Since 1985, backers of this longtime scam have been able to add another rationale. Paying farmers “rent” not to grow row crops — including corn and soybeans — on 34 million acres across the country is now identified as a “conservation” program.

Some of the land is used as a buffer along streams and rivers. A typical contract under the program lasts for 10 or 15 years. Anyone wishing to opt out has to pay a penalty and refund all the rent money to the government.

Enter the new ethanol boondoggle, in which 25 percent of America’s corn crop has been diverted to the distilleries to be turned into “white lightning,” once an illicit intoxicant but now known as the “ethanol” being mixed into our auto fuel, supposedly to reduce pollution.

Since the United States exports grain to so much of the world, the resulting explosion in prices has led to food riots in Africa. And corn is also used as animal feed. Yes, meat prices have gone up, but there are limits to what consumers will pay. Pork producers say they’re currently losing $30 per pig.

The solution? The National Pork Producers Council and others are lobbying Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to waive the penalties for putting “conserved” agricultural lands back into production, freeing up millions of acres to be plowed again.

In September, contracts will expire on 1.2 million acres, and in the next four years the numbers jump: 3.9 million acres under contracts that expire in 2009, 4.5 million in 2010, 4.4 million in 2011 and 5.6 million in 2012.

Higher prices have farmers champing at the bit to farm that land. If it’ll feed to hungry, why not?

Not so fast, say the environmentalists. Fifteen environmental organizations this week sent a letter to Secretary Schafer, declaring that a penalty-free opt-out of Conservation Reserve Program contracts would “deliver a devastating blow to the nation’s soil, water, and wildlife habitat, and significantly increase global warming.”

“The reason it’s in the Conservation Reserve Program, it’s environmentally fragile, it’s highly erodible land, and we’ve invested a hell of a lot of money in getting cover on this land and putting it to bed, basically,” says Ralph Heimlich, an environmental consultant to the Environmental Defense Fund and former deputy director at the USDA.

Scott Stephens, a spokesman for Ducks Unlimited, said the Conservation Reserve Program has had huge benefits for wildlife and water quality. If farmers convert grassland back to crops, he said, “that’s a death spiral for wildlife populations.”

According to the Washington Post, the environmental groups say the lands in question are “too marginal for crop production to have a significant impact on the supplies and prices of food crops,” anyway.

Really? But if farmers wouldn’t be able to produce substantial crops on these supposedly “marginal” lands … why are taxpayers paying them $1.8 billion per year — that’s billion with a “b” — to keep them out of production? The Agriculture Department might as well pay Wal-Mart not to grow soybeans in their parking lots.

Shh … better not give them any more ideas.

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