Corn on Conservation Land & School Air Pollution

  • As part of the Conservation Reserve Program, farmers are paid to put grassy strips to act as buffer zones along waterways. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Leaders in Michigan’s farm community are urging Senator Debbie Stabenow and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to change the rules for a land conservation program on farms. They say the current program could lead to higher food prices. Julie Grant reports:

When farmers agree to put their land into the Conservation Reserve Program, they sign a lease agreement: the government is basically renting the land to keep it out of farm production. These kinds of deals are made on land that might erode into streams or rivers. The government wants to prevent erosion and farm chemicals from running into the water. The lease agreements run from 10- to-15 years. If farmers want out before their contract is up, they have to pay.

Sam Hines is vice president of the Michigan Pork Producers Association. He says pork producers need more corn. He says the price of corn is so high right now, and there’s just not enough of it. Hines wants Senator Stabenow, who is chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to consider changing the program:

“To take a look at perhaps allowing people to get out of the program on an early release without penalty, in order put some of the productive land that’s in the program in crops.”

Hines says if something isn’t done, he expects food prices to rise:

“If pork producers can’t access adequate grain stocks, they will have to cut back on their levels of production, that will make even less pork or protein available at the meat counter, and the prices will go even higher.”

Hines and many others agree about the reason corn supplies are so low: ethanol mandates. The federal government requires that a certain amount ethanol be produced every year, and that comes from corn. So pork producers and farmers now have to share the available corn with ethanol fuel producers.

Don Carr is spokesperson for the Environmental Working Group, which specializes in farm policy. He says it would be a mistake to increase corn production on land that’s currently protected under the Conservation Reserve Program.

“It’s truly one of the only lines of defense, these conservation lands that soak up agrichemicals. They mitigate runoff, they help mitigate erosion. They protect stream banks. They’re really the only last line of defense in a lot of cases between the ravages of modern industrial agriculture.”

Carr says the answer is not to pull sensitive land out of the Conservation Reserve Program in order to increase corn farming. He says instead, Congress should rollback the ethanol mandates.

For the Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

More about the Conservation Reserve Program

Michigan Pork Producers

The U-M air pollution study


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This is the Environment Report.

A new University of Michigan study finds 62% of public schools in the state are located in places with high levels of air pollution from industries.

Paul Mohai is one of the study’s authors.

“Often schools are located in more polluted parts of their respective school districts.”

He says schools need a lot of land… and land is expensive but money is tight.

“There’s probably quite an economic pressure to put schools where land values are low, and those may be near highways or industrial facilities or otherwise are polluted.”

Mohai says Michigan has no formal policy that requires school boards to consider the environmental quality of an area for a new school.

William Mayes is the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. He says school boards do consider pollution when they’re siting new schools.

“You know, intelligent people are thinking about this. The bottom line is you look at where your community is expanding where your community is growing and you seek the most economical and safe property you can to build a school.”

Mayes says people are drawn to where the jobs are, and that’s often near industries, and industries pollute.

The study was published in the journal Health Affairs.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.