A 50-Year Farm Bill

Published on January 4th in the New York Times by Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry

The extraordinary rainstorms last June caused catastrophic soil erosion in the grain lands of Iowa, where there were gullies 200 feet wide. But even worse damage is done over the long term under normal rainfall — by the little rills and sheets of erosion on incompletely covered or denuded cropland, and by various degradations resulting from industrial procedures and technologies alien to both agriculture and nature.

Soil that is used and abused in this way is as nonrenewable as (and far more valuable than) oil. Unlike oil, it has no technological substitute — and no powerful friends in the halls of government.

Agriculture has too often involved an insupportable abuse and waste of soil, ever since the first farmers took away the soil-saving cover and roots of perennial plants. Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. This irremediable loss, never enough noticed, has been made worse by the huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure of the agriculture we now practice.

To the problem of soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has added pollution by toxic chemicals, now universally present in our farmlands and streams. Some of this toxicity is associated with the widely acclaimed method of minimum tillage. We should not poison our soils to save them.

Industrial agricultural has made our food supply entirely dependent on fossil fuels and, by substituting technological “solutions” for human work and care, has virtually destroyed the cultures of husbandry (imperfect as they may have been) once indigenous to family farms and farming neighborhoods.

Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable. We must restore ecological health to our agricultural landscapes, as well as economic and cultural stability to our rural communities.

For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. That is a mistake. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy. The government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billons of dollars to the agribusiness corporations.

Any restorations will require, above all else, a substantial increase in the acreages of perennial plants. The most immediately practicable way of doing this is to go back to crop rotations that include hay, pasture and grazing animals.

But a more radical response is necessary if we are to keep eating and preserve our land at the same time. In fact, research in Canada, Australia, China and the United States over the last 30 years suggests that perennialization of the major grain crops like wheat, rice, sorghum and sunflowers can be developed in the foreseeable future. By increasing the use of mixtures of grain-bearing perennials, we can better protect the soil and substantially reduce greenhouse gases, fossil-fuel use and toxic pollution.

Carbon sequestration would increase, and the husbandry of water and soil nutrients would become much more efficient. And with an increase in the use of perennial plants and grazing animals would come more employment opportunities in agriculture — provided, of course, that farmers would be paid justly for their work and their goods.

Thoughtful farmers and consumers everywhere are already making many necessary changes in the production and marketing of food. But we also need a national agricultural policy that is based upon ecological principles. We need a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.

This is a political issue, certainly, but it far transcends the farm politics we are used to. It is an issue as close to every one of us as our own stomachs.

Wes Jackson is a plant geneticist and president of The Land Institute in Salina, Kan. Wendell Berry is a farmer and writer in Port Royal, Ky.


Three years ago we received a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant, in collaboration with economists at the University of Rhode Island, to develop a community-based ecosystem service market. The market prototype was narrowly focused on providing wildlife habitat (particularly for Bobolinks) on farm fields. By concentrating our energies, we were able to gain substantial insight about how best to market ‘green credits’, how best to contract with farmers for conservation practices that create enhanced ecosystem services, and how best to organize and conduct local and regional markets.

Today we launched a website (parts are still under development) that establishes the Nature Services Exchange. Our goal is to first provide tools for agricultural and rural communities to evaluate and measure their ecosystem services, plan for ecosystem service improvements, and monitor those enhancements over time. As systems and standards for green credit markets evolve, we will adapt those evaluation methods to align with green credit/carbon offset standards – allowing communities to use www.natureservicesexchange.com as a registry and electronic marketplace.


EcoAsset Markets has also begun developing a green credit exchange and fund for southern New England.

The Economic Impact of the Interstate Highway System

Since we’ve heard a lot about infrastructure improvement, I thought it might be interesting to look at the economics of interstate highways and where enviromental impacts are considered.

Here’s an interesting paper published in 2006.

The Politics of Climate Change

The Guardian yesterday published an article quoting Jim Hansen, head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, as saying Barack Obama only had four years to act to avoid an ecodisaster….and that cap and trade markets for carbon have failed….quite the statement!


There have been over three hundred comments published on the article and many of them are ugly. I generally try to avoid over-dramatizing problems….and this article points out what happens when you make stark generalizations.

One of the comments, however, caught my eye:

We have manged to design economic systems that have been an utter failure, why do we not think it in the realms of humans ability to also destroy the environment. If we are willing to invest trillions globally on propping up financial institutions why should not billions be spent on enhancing the air that we breathe.

Ponzi Schemes Compared

I received a comment from the fellow who transcribed and first published the 2005 letter to the SEC about Bernie Madoof …and decided (at 4am in the morning…) to review his blog site.

Came across this interesting graphic which compares two Ponzi scheme liabilities…Madoff’s and the Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid Ponzi scheme. Wait a minute!…Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid isn’t a Ponzi scheme is it?….it’s just ‘unfunded liabilities’….now I feel better!

Is America about to become a societal dinosaur?…trying to sell vinyl records in the Internet era.


And you thought differential equations were difficult…

Here is a link to the letter that Harry Markopolous sent to the SEC in 2005 about Bernie Madoff. Not only does it give you insight into the nature of the world in which Bernie Madoff was living…..it also gives you insight into the quality of thought…and the underlying ethic…of financial markets in the last 10 years.


Chesapeake Bay Foundation Sues USEPA

It’s interesting that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and some others have sued USEPA to force restoration of Chesapeake Bay waters.  I read CBF’s statement and think it’s a bit too political sour grapes for my taste (although I think we’ll see lots of this king of language from the environmental community as the Obama administration transitions).

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