RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There is increasing support in the United States for programs that pay farmers to protect streams and wildlife habitat. Europe has gone much further. Starting this year, tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies for farmers in Europe won't be based on how much food those farmers produce but instead on how they manage the environment. In the final report on paying farmers to care for the land, Dan Charles looks at how farmers in different parts of Europe are taking to their new role.

DAN CHARLES reporting:

The cows on Andreas Reeser's(ph) farm are hungry.

(Soundbite of cows mooing)

CHARLES: They don't know how good they have it. All summerlong they get to graze on meadows in the Austrian Alps in the shadow of snow-capped mountain peaks west of Innsbruck. For centuries, grazing has preserved these meadows with their wildflowers and birds. Without cattle, the meadows would be overtaken by trees, and nobody here wants that. Reeser says this is one reason to keep farming, to maintain the scenery.

Mr. ANDREAS REESER (Farmer): (Through Translator) Our prospects for the future are very simply on preserving the landscape and keeping intact the basis of tourism.

CHARLES: But is that any way to earn a living, I wonder?

Mr. REESER: (Foreign language spoken)

CHARLES: `Yes and no,' Reeser says.

Mr. REESER: (Foreign language spoken)

CHARLES: `Look over there at those large trees,' he says. `The grassy meadow underneath them was created in earlier times by grazing cattle or mowing between the trees, preventing underbrush from growing.'

Mr. REESER: (Through Translator) And now they have been placed under landscape protection. It's kind of a nature preserve. And when we maintain it, we get per hectare between 350 and 400 euros.

CHARLES: That's about $250 per acre, a subsidy from the government. Like most farmers in this part of Austria, Reeser also gets subsidies for farming organically. But he can't increase those subsidies by milking more cows or raising more pigs. If anything, the subsidies reward him for having just a few animals.

(Soundbite of pigs)

CHARLES: Increasingly, this is the new direction of European farm policy. It could have a big effect on what the European countryside looks like in the future. Government payments account for about 15 percent of all farm income in Europe. Starting this year, most of those payments are based simply on how much land farmers have, not on how much wheat or corn they grow. In fact, farmers don't have to grow any crops at all. But many will increase their subsidy by doing things to help the environment: converting corn fields into meadows that songbirds like to nest in, for instance. Farmers won't get any payments at all, though, if they violate environmental regulations, if they overdose their fields with fertilizer or plow right along the banks of streams, polluting the water.

Mr. FRANZ FISCHLER (Former EU Agriculture Commissioner): This is a fundamental change in the European agricultural policy.

CHARLES: Franz Fischler pushed for this change. Until November of last year, he was the European Union's commissioner for agriculture, roughly equivalent to secretary of Agriculture in the United States.

Mr. FISCHLER: There is no longer what is called a subsidy. It is, in reality, a kind of payment for the public services farmers provide.

CHARLES: Europe's farmers were forced to give up their previous subsidies partly because of pressure from other countries and the World Trade Organization. Like many American farm subsidies today, those payments undermined free trade. They encouraged farmers to produce big surpluses of wheat and milk, which drove down prices for farmers in other parts of the world. But Fischler says there was a more important factor: Europeans didn't like where agriculture was heading.

Mr. JACQUES BEAUDRY(ph) (University of Rennes): We have almost no grasslands. Everything has been removed.

CHARLES: Jacques Beaudry, an ecologist at the University of Rennes in France, looks down across a hillside in the French region of Brittany.

Mr. BEAUDRY: And it's becoming more and more negative with time. We have more and more landscape features disappearing.

CHARLES: For centuries, he says, this hillside was a patchwork of small fields and meadows with tall hedgerows in between. But during the last 50 years, all that disappeared in a drive for agricultural efficiency. The fields now are wide and bare, ready for planting. In the distance, a tractor is spreading something, perhaps nitrogen fertilizer.

Mr. BEAUDRY: And also this landscape is more polluted in terms of the nitrogen content of the streams, and the aspect is not what people expect from Brittany.

CHARLES: Europe's agricultural reform is supposed to slow this trend and in a few areas maybe even reverse it. It's not at all clear, though, whether the reform will succeed. For one thing, because of Europe's budget crisis, there's less money for the new environmental subsidies. Also there's resistance from many farmers.

(Soundbite of tractor)

CHARLES: Jean-Luc Gautier(ph), a farmer in Brittany, went to one meeting where officials were explaining ways that farmers could help the environment but walked out in disgust. It was insulting, he says. He became a farmer to feed people, not to be the government's gardener.

Mr. JEAN-LUC GAUTIER (Farmer): (Through Translator) Feeding the planet is a very noble thing. To produce milk that would feed babies. To get up in the morning and be paid by the state to cut branches and weeds, and for that to be 80 percent of our income is a lot less motivating. The noble side of the profession is disappearing.

CHARLES: Even when farmers do participate in those programs, it's often hard to see the results. For instance, a farmer who gave his name as Mr. Holland(ph) in the English town of Wrangle, will get some money for keeping a portion of his land in pasture instead of growing crops. It's part of a new program in the United Kingdom called Environmental Stewardship. But Mr. Holland says he'd do that even without the money.

Mr. HOLLAND (Farmer): We've always had cattle roaming about, and it's just something we enjoy, something we enjoy seeing, and if I'm gonna be paid a little extra for doing it, then I'm all in favor of having it. It's money for nothing really. If it's helping the environment, all well and good.

CHARLES: Other farmers whose hearts aren't in it sometimes find a way to fulfill the letter of a program's requirements but not its spirit. For all the complications, though, most people agree that Environmental Stewardship and similar programs across Europe are gradually changing how farmers think. Andrew Clark from Britain's National Farmers' Union says farmers are starting to see themselves not just as food producers but also as people who get paid for managing scenery and wildlife.

Mr. ANDREW CLARK (National Farmers Union): I see no reason why we couldn't see countryside conservation as another crop. The public clearly values the countryside. They like the way it's farmed. They flock into the countryside every weekend to go and enjoy it. Farmers provide clearly a big public benefit. Well, why can't we be paid for that?

CHARLES: The United States has long attacked Europe's subsidies, whether they're for corn production or alpine pastures, as an interference in the free market, keeping uncompetitive farmers in business. European farm subsidies are much higher than those in the United States. But increasingly, American officials are feeling the same pressures that drove Europe toward this latest reform. American farm subsidies, $24 billion this year, are under attack in international trade negotiations. Payments to farmers for cleaner water or wildlife habitat, though, are less of a problem under free trade rules, and some farm leaders are starting to think that such payments also may be more popular with taxpayers. So American farmers, too, may find it profitable to start thinking and acting like part-time park rangers. For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.

MONTAGNE: You can hear earlier reports in this series at npr.org.

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