oridAgricullure. January 1,. 1987
Why the 1985 Farm Bill
Some people think of swamps and mar-
shes as dark, forbidding places teeming
with mosquitoes, snakes, and possibly
alligators. Others think of them as ex-
cellent locations for fishing, hunting, and
According to economists Ralph
Heinilich and Linda Langner of
L'SD.'s Economic Research Service.
there's more to America's wetlands
-lowland areas filled with moisture
-than either image might suggest. In a
recent issue of the Agriculture Depart.
ment's FARMLINE magazine, the
economists note that wetlands are a
valuable natural resource-a fact that
goes a long way in explaining the new
"swampbuster" provision in the 1985
farm bill (Food Security Art).
In past decades, millions of acres of
swamps and marshes have been drained
for agricultural conversion and other pur-
poses. Heimlich and Langner estimate
that U.S. wetlands now cover about 99
million acres, down from somewhere bet-
ween 127 and 215 million acres in the
for farming-began before the turn of the
century. Only recently has it come to be
viewed as harmful to the environment."
explains Heimlich. "Historically, swamps
and marshes have been thought of
negatively, as land that had to be reclaim-
ed and made productive."
Langner says that early government
programs led to swampbusting. Federal
surveys prior to 1948 focused on areas
where swamps and marshes were drain-
ed for reasons of public health and
agricultural development. Direct govern-
ment assistance for agricultural conver-
sion was available until 1978.
But the thinking has changed, and so
have the laws. The farm bill stipulates
that farmers who swampbust will lose
their eligibility for farm program benefits,
including USDA price support programs.
disaster payments, crop insurance,
Farmers Home Administration loans,
Commodity Credit Corporation storage
payments, and farm storage facility loans.
Value of Wetlands
%% wetlands serve a variety of economic
and ecological purposes. According to the
SoilConservation Society of America, a
nonprofit organization that promote
conservation of land and water resources,
wetlands can reduce the risk of flooding
They store water during periods of high
steam and river fow and release it back
Swamps and marshes also improve
water quality because they trap sediment.
sewage. and pollutants. This ability to ab-
sorb water also enables wetlands to help
stabilize shorelines against erosion and
protects our wetlands
O Amnericu n Al a o Prvately Owned Wetlands. 1 Milon Acmrs save
a High or Medium tnta r Agr ultur Conesion
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Wetlands provide another important
benefit: They're home for a multitude of
plants and animals. Approximately two-
thirds of all commercial fish-including
bluefish and striped bass-spawn in
estuaries and marshes.
Freshwater wetlands are critical
feeding, spawning, and nursery grounds
for bass, northern pike, and perch.
Saltwater marshes are home for IS
leading commercial fish and shellfish such
as crabs, shrimp, and oysters.
At least 50 fur-bearing animals such as
muskrat and mink live in swamps and
marshes. But waterfowl are most closely
associated with them. Ducks and geese
depend on northern wetlands as their
main breeding grounds.
Where there's marsh, there's also
economic value. The 1980 harvest value
of animal hides trapped in wetlands total-
ed about $94 million. The value of the
saltwater fish catch that same year was
about SI billion.
According to the economists, swamp-
busting threatens wildlife areas in Florida.
North Carolina. some upper Midwestern
states including Nebraska and North
Dakota, and lower Mississippi River
states such as Arkansas. Mississippi, and
Coevertieg wetlands for farming
Farmers generally convert their land
when revenue or anticipated revenue from
expanded crop production means increas-
ed profit. Heimlich and Langer estimate
that about 43 million acres of the remain-
ing 99 million acres of U.S. wetlands (78
million acres are privately owned) could
be farmed if drained. Of that total, about
5.1 million acres have a high or medium
potential for conversion, according to
USDA's Soil Conservation Service.
"Economic conditions, to sonei extent,
have reduced the wetlands acreage that
has been drained in recent years." says
Langner. "But this is a short-term con-
dition. In the long run, there is still the
potential for increased swampbusting."
Whether or not farmers will drain more
wetlands is an unanswered question, sug-
gest the analysts. They note that drainage
will probably continue for such purposes
as timber harvesting, stream channeliza-
tion, and removing isolated swamps or
marshlands from farmland already in
But conversion costs vary widely ,
depending on the type of wetland own-
ed. Costs can range from less than $20 an
acre for farmers using their own equip-
ment in parts of the upper Midwest to
more than $200 an acre in some North
According to Heimlich, swamps and
marshes located in upland areas are the
type most frequently drained for farming.
He estimates that about 14-22 million
acres of wetlands-if converted for far-
ming and enrolled in price support
program-could have given positive
returns above operating and conversion
costs in 1985.
The new swampbuster provisions affect
the economics for conversion only for the
farms and commodities that qualify for
government programs. Participation in
these programs varies widely from region
to region. The economists predict that
swampbuster sanctions will be more ef-
fective in upper Midwestern states, like
Nebraska and North Dakota, where
government payments are a larger percen-
tage of net farm income.