Agriculture home

Part I: Subsidies and alternatives

Part II: The Conservation Reserve

Part III: Explorations in Europe


Farmers as Park Rangers?

It's always a little frustrating, journalistically speaking, when reality gets in the way of a good story. And by the time I was halfway through my European excursion, that's what seemed to be happening.

I was there to learn about the shifting shape of farming in the Old World. Specifically, I wanted to learn about the brand-new reform of the European Union's agricultural policy. I knew the outlines, in an abstract sort of way: Government subsidies are no longer tied to farm production; farmers instead get a lump-sum payment based simply on the size of their farm. In addition, the environment has moved center-stage. Farmers only get their "single farm payment" if they comply with a whole new set of regulations aimed at providing habitat for wildlife and improving water quality. And what's more, there's increased funding for "agri-environmental schemes" that pay farmers to go the extra mile (or kilometer) and provide specific environmental benefits.

It all seemed to add up to quite a dramatic shift in farm policy, one that could re-shape the European landscape. And I wondered if the US might want to follow in Europe's footsteps.

I landed in London, and my preconceptions held up reasonably well for about a day.

Jack Thurston on the air at Resonance 104.4 FM, London.
Jack Thurston, who's been trying to force European governments to release farm-by-farm data on subsides (when he's not hosting a local radio show on bicycling) confirmed my general impression of the reforms, though he did warn me against overstating the importance of environmental concerns: "When it came down to the crunch debates, I don't think the heads of state were talking about hedgerows and river pollution - I think they were talking about budgets and trade." Andrew Clark, from the UK's National Farmer's Union, endorsed the new policies with a few caveats about potentially unreasonable regulations. Payments linked to environmental performance could be good for farmers because they were were more popular with the tax-paying public, he said. "I see no reason why we couldn't see countryside preservation as another crop."

David Baldock, head of the Institute for European Environmental Policy and pioneer among advocates of environment-focused farm policies, called the new reform "pretty significant" and suggested that in the future, most payments to farmers would finance specific environmental benefits. Such words are music to a journalist's ears. A new trend!

I rented a car and, left-side driving, ventured northeast toward some of England's prime farm land. In the village of Deeping St. Nicholas, I met Nicholas Watts, a large-scale and prosperous farmer who's also locally famous as a lover of birds. He showed me around Vinehouse Farm, pointing out the  untrimmed drainage ditches, or "dykes" filled with tall grass ("I've been to the USA, to the Imperial Valley. The dykes there are just a nuisance to the farmers. They spray them all with Roundup! The dyke is just bare ground!") and organic wheat fields. "You can see the weeds in there," he said. " They will provide diversity. Insects will be in there; the birds can get in there" to feed on insects. And from the window of his truck, he pointed to three kestrals hovering over a small field of grass.

So were the new policy reforms going to change things? Watts didn't really think so. He'd started doing things to aid birds before there were any subsidies to speak of. Other farmers hadn't, and still wouldn't. "I think at the moment it is window dressing. Most farmers are still really farming hard. OK, we've got to farm hard to survive. We sell our wheat at world prices, but our costs are higher, simply because people want our land ... for houses."

That wasn't exactly the story I had in mind. I continued on to the village of Wrangle, where the UK government was holding a meeting to introduce a new "agri-environmental scheme" called Environmental Stewardship. The meeting was well attended. Farmers seemed quite willing to sign up. But when I asked them whether the subsidy would change how they farmed, most denied it. "It's money for nothing, really," said one. (To be fair, they were prepared to do some things, such as leave strips of land uncultivated and leave stubble on their fields over winter; they just didn't consider such things very significant or burdensome - and that's exactly the message that the architects of Environmental Stewardship are trying to get across to farmers.)

On to Brussels. Here, I got the distinct impression that the pro-environment trend in farm policy was no longer on the offensive, but instead trying desperately to defend its ground against a counterattack.

I learned that Franz Fischler, who resigned in November, 2004, from his job as EU's commissioner for agriculture, wanted to shift 30 percent of all agricultural payments into the "rural development" budget, which includes agri-environmental programs. Opponents, led by French president (and former agriculture minister) Jacques Chirac, blocked the plan.

In addition, the French and German governments announced an agreement that future budget cuts would spare the biggest and least environmentally focused subsidy, the single farm payment. It placed agri-environmental schemes squarely on the chopping block.

Digesting that, I stepped on a train to Rennes, in northwestern France. (What a difference Europe's new fast trains make! When I started traveling in Europe 25 years ago, that trip would have consumed an entire day. Now it takes four hours, one hour of which is spent getting across Paris in the metro.)

Auvoir, noble French farmer

Jacques Baudry, left, with farmer.

Jacques Baudry, a charming and slightly manic ecologist at the University of Rennes, rounded up some economist colleagues (Karine Latouche and Nadine Turpin) and we spent a day careening across the countryside of Brittany, looking at the landscape and meeting farmers. One farmer knew about environmental payments and found them insulting. "The noble part of the professions is disappearing," he said. Another seemed in favor, though tentatively.

Jean-Luc Gautier, french farmer, with Nadine Turpin, from the University of Rennes.

No particular surprise there. But there was something else I hadn't expected - the feeling that these farmers didn't even realize that a far-reaching reform was underway. The farmers I met seemed to feel that subsidies still were intended to help them pursue their mission of food production. The message I'd heard in London and Brussels - that subsidies now were entirely "de-coupled" from production - didn't appear to have reached the countryside of Brittany.

And just as in England, the more closely I looked at attempts to use subsidies to change farming practices, the more complicated things seemed. For one thing, the French government isn't actually enforcing some of the tough new regulations that are supposed to accompany the single farm payment.

Karine Latouche, an economist, said an examination of agri-environmental programs in another part of France turned up many problems. "In some cases, farmers ripped out buffer strips [of grass along streams] so that they could get paid to establish them again," she said. And like Mr. Holland, in England, the French farmers who promised to do environmentally beneficial things often were doing them anyway, even without a subsidy.

I returned to my hotel, wondering what I could possibly write.

A Tyrolean farmer

I boarded a plane for Innsbruck, in the Austrian Alps. It's a spectacular ride. The plane seems to just clear the jagged tops of snow-capped mountains before descending straight down into the valley. This is Tyrol, Franz Fischler's home. After visiting it, I came to think of it as the template for Europe's agricultural reform. Whether that's true or not, it did help me put the scattered pieces of my story back together.

Fischler, now freed from his job as the EU's agriculture commissioner, has returned to Absam, the small town outside Innsbruck where he grew up. He's bearded and burly and looks like a Tyrolean farmer - which his father was.

Tyrolean mountainside landscapes. Notice the pastures. Without farming, the mountains would be covered in trees.

The classic Tyrolean farm is tiny, by American standards - only ten or twenty acres. It's up on the side of a mountain, where the land is too steep to grow crops. There are usually some cows, perhaps chickens, sheep, and horses. During the summer months, some of the cattle are sent to pastures much higher on the mountainside, where they graze until winter approaches.

There's no clear economic reason to keep doing any of this. You can't earn a living farming here. Eighty percent of Tyrolean farmers have off-farm jobs. But it's a way of life, and those animals and pastures are treasured parts of the landscape. "Years ago, I picked up an American expert up at the Salzberg airport and went with him to a village where there was a conference," Fischler recalls. "And on the way, he was always looking around, and he said, 'Can you tell me, who is maintaining all these parks here? It must be so expensive!'"

The farmers were doing it, of course. They maintain those "parks" for several reasons: A sense of duty and tradition; Because they enjoy it; Money money. And much of the money comes from government subsidies. For many of the farms at the highest altitudes, government payments make up half or more of their farming income.

Would they keep doing it, without subsidies? Maybe, maybe not. But Fischler says guaranteeing their continued effort is worth every penny. Farmers maintain that scenery for a fraction of what professional park rangers would cost. They're carrying out a public service, one that people - and a thriving tourist industry - demand. "They can get it if they are prepared to pay for it," Fischler says.

But Fischer turns repeatedly to a second theme, one that I hadn't paid much attention to on this trip. It's not enough to support farming, he says, because rural communities don't rely on farming anymore. Those few that do, in highly productive areas, face a second danger, because modern machinery allows a handful of people to farm vast territories. "The villages can only remain as they were ... if there is enough diversity of economic activities, if there is enough population, so there are health services, social services, schools, kindergartens."

This idea, too, is drawn from the Tyrolean experience. Farms here are so small, because of geography, that farmers always found other things to do besides farming. And that served them very well. Off-farm jobs, not government subsidies, are the real economic basis of farming villages here. Tyrolean farmers had an escape hatch; they weren't trapped iin a declining industry facing competition from countries where land and labor is vastly cheaper.

Andreas Riser with his cows.

"We've had to think - 'What can I do, how can I develop and achieve something," said Andreas Riser, a farmer in the town of Obsteig. "If you have 200 cows, the question never even comes up. You're fixated on one point - milking cows."

With Tyrol in front of me, Europe's agricultural reforms suddenly made more sense, at least Fischler's version of them. The goal of public money is to support public goals: Environmental priorities and economic development, including off-farm jobs in rural areas.

But an awful lot of farmers aren't on board, I tell Fischler. I've met quite a few who just want the government to pay them to grow more food.

He laughs. "You are absolutely right. Don't forget, the farmers were told this for hundreds of years, that this is their mission, and this is what they should do, and nothing else, and if they do it, everything is fine." In fact, in the years following World War II, with food shortages fresh in their memory, many European governments pushed farmers to modernize and increase production rapidly.

The main accomplishment of some agri-environmental programs,then, may be pedagogical. They get farmers' attention and tell them that times have changed. The public wants something else from farmers now; it wants a clean and green countryside.