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The government estimates that American taxpayers will pay about $24 billion in subsidies to farmers this year; that's a record. Critics, and they include some farmers, say taxpayers should not pay for surpluses of corn or cotton. They think public money should only pay for things that benefit the public, like cleaner water, a healthier environment. Dan Charles has the first of three reports on programs that pay farmers not to grow food but to care for the land.

DAN CHARLES reporting:

Farmers and ranchers, more than anyone else, control the country's natural environment. They manage more than half of all the land in the lower 48 states. Michael Hayden, a former governor of Kansas, now head of the state's Department of Wildlife and Parks, says that means wildlife lives in a precarious balance with farming.

Mr. MICHAEL HAYDEN (Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks): A farmer looks out there at wildlife habitat and he often calls that wasteland, because it's not producing monetarily for agriculture. But it is the place where songbirds live. It is the place where quail and pheasant live, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer. It's a place where these critters call home.

(Soundbite of bird singing)

CHARLES: But some farmers and naturalists say you can have farms and wildlife. On Art Thicke's farm, for instance, high on a ridge near the town of La Crescent in southeastern Minnesota, the air is thick with the songs of birds.

Mr. ART THICKE (Farmer): In the back of my barn, when I'm milking in the morning, there's always a song sparrow that comes and sings to me, and then sometimes the meadowlarks will come and sit there. They sit right on the post right next to the barn, and they'll sing to me.

CHARLES: Ground-nesting birds thrive here because Thicke is a patron of pasture, a master of meadows. Twenty years ago, he stopped growing crops like corn on his farm and converted all those fields into pasture for his cows. No plow has touched his land since. He has 40 different fenced-off pastures, and he moves his cows to a new one after every milking. They munch on a bovine salad bar of quack grass, orchard grass, dandelion, clover and burdock.

Mr. THICKE: I let the cows determine what they want to eat, and even if I have a few plants in my pastures which the cows don't eat, that doesn't really hurt. If it goes back to the land, it's feeding my life in the soil, too, you know. I don't feel we have to utilize every blade of grass on our farm.

CHARLES: The hills on this farm are steep, and grassy meadows also keep rainstorms from washing away the soil.

Mr. THICKE: When you get a big rain, four- or five-inch rain, it just goes in the ground. We have, you know, minimal runoff. It's really amazing.

CHARLES: Thicke's choice, to convert fields to pastures, is the exception, though. It's more common for farmers to do the opposite: plow up pastures and plant corn or soybeans instead. One reason they do this is billions of dollars in government subsidies. Farmers don't get government checks for growing forage like grass, but they do for producing corn and soybeans. The sad thing, Thicke says, is that this means less wildlife, and rain is a lot more likely to wash soil from a corn or soybean field.

Mr. THICKE: I a lot of times say that we're subsidizing erosion, we're subsidizing polluting our waters and so forth, because we have too much corn and soybean out on this land, you know. We need more forages to hold the land in place.

(Soundbite of traffic)

CHARLES: When soil does wash off fields around here, a lot of it ends up in the Root River, a few miles from Art Thicke's farm. Tex Hawkins(ph) from the US Fish and Wildlife Service points to the water. It's brown with soil.

Mr. TEX HAWKINS (US Fish and Wildlife Service): You see how much topsoil is lodged in the whole floodplain here. It's several feet deep, and the fresh eroded banks over there show you that that's all topsoil.

CHARLES: Hawkins says if more farms upstream were like Art Thicke's, this river would look a lot better. There would be more fish in it, and towns along the river wouldn't get flooded as often. This year, farmers along the Root River and in 200 other targeted areas around the country will get a small nudge in Art Thicke's direction. The US Department of Agriculture is starting up a new program, offering them money to farm in ways that help the environment. The USDA has had conservation programs for many years, but most of that money pays farmers to stop farming, to take land out of production completely. This new initiative, the Conservation Security Program, encourages people to keep farming but to farm differently.

It's still a small program. It accounts for just 1 percent of farm subsidies this year, but some people say this is what all farm payments should be like in the future. Mark Kunz, from the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, helps run the program in southeastern Minnesota.

Mr. MARK KUNZ (USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service): This Conservation Security Program is a way for people to see that they can be rewarded for properly taking care of the environment.

CHARLES: A little bit of that money will go to David Scheevel, a dairy farmer near the town of Preston, Minnesota. Only Scheevel's hay fields were allowed into the program this year. His cornfields didn't qualify because he's been spreading more fertilizer than the experts recommend.

Mr. DAVID SCHEEVEL (Farmer): We've been hearing yields around here of 180 to 200 bushel an acre, so trying to achieve that on some fields, I've been pushing the nitrogen.

CHARLES: Scheevel isn't too enthusiastic about the program. He says it's been a lot of paperwork for a small amount of money. For his neighbor and former high-school classmate, David Serfling, though, it's a dream come true. Serfling is a member of the Land Stewardship Project, an organization that's been pushing for environmental payments to farmers. Government money is a powerful tool, Serfling says.

Mr. DAVID SERFLING (Land Stewardship Project): There's still a lot of economic pressure out here in farming land, and money talks.

CHARLES: But Serfling also says this new program still doesn't talk as loudly as traditional crop subsidies. It's not enough to convince most farmers to change what they're doing very much. In fact, environmentalists worry that the people running this program aren't even asking farmers to change.

Mr. SERFLING: Right now you have to have it in your heart to make changes on your farm, and we're hoping to get enough economic incentive that you can use your head and calculate a return, switching.

CHARLES: The campaign for increased environmental payments to farmers has gained strength in recent years. Michael Hayden, the former Republican governor of Kansas, says it's exactly the right way to go.

Mr. HAYDEN: Because we are actually paying farmers, then, for something that has societal benefits. Water quality is important to us all. Wildlife's important to us all. The reduction of soil and wind erosion are important to us all, as a society.

CHARLES: And Craig Hill, vice president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, who's a member of a national Farm Bureau task force looking at the future of American agriculture, also supports the idea, though cautiously. Hill says the current farm subsidies have ended up making farmers more vulnerable. They've encouraged overproduction of many crops, driving down the prices that farmers get, leaving them even more dependent on subsidies. Hill says his personal view is, there has to be a better way.

Mr. CRAIG HILL (Iowa Farm Bureau): Maybe that money spent in other areas provides more benefits at a lower cost and some of the environmental practices that we could do, and if there was compensation for that, seems like a very good alternative.

CHARLES: That alternative is a big threat, though, to others. Cotton and rice farmers get the biggest subsidies under the current system, often amounting to hundreds of dollars per acre, a lot more than they'd ever get for improving the environment. There aren't very many of those farmers, but they depend the most on production subsidies, and they're fighting hard to keep those subsidies in place.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.

STAMBERG: To see green agriculture in action, check npr.org. Part two of this series runs later today on "All Things Considered."

This is NPR News.

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