Points North: Backyard Vacations and Fat Farm Subsidies

It's harvest time on the North Shore (janet.powell/Flickr)
It's harvest time on the North Shore (janet.powell/Flickr)

Every August I have a powerful urge to head West and get lost somewhere with mountains and trout streams. My westward wanderlust is mostly a day dream, because I find it so hard to get away from my North Shore baliwick at this time of year. Why leave on vacation when you can have so much fun at home?

It's harvest time. In the past week, I've spent several mornings and evenings on the water, coming home from each outing with a mess of fish ranging from Chinook salmon and lake trout to walleyes and smallmouth bass. On my daily dog walks, I've picked a supply of wild raspberries. The garden is providing its annual bounty of produce, too. As frosting on the cake, I even had a productive work week. All told, it was better than being on vacation.

When you consider the current price of gasoline, my backyard vacation beat a Rocky Mountain adventure hands down. In fact, I can fuel a year's worth of close-to-home fishing trips for the petrol costs of one western trip. As someone who enjoys fishing, I'd rather hit the water frequently than save my money and free time for a once-a-year vacation fling.

While I've wet a line in many waters from coast to coast, very often such trips have been squeezed into my outdoor "down time" around home. Not long ago, I had dinner with two writer friends who were talking about trips they've made and would like to make to far-flung locations. My life seemed less traveled by comparison. Then I realized just a few months of my near-home excursions would tally up more outdoor adventure time than they'll ever achieve in annual long-distance vacations.

When you spend a lot of time outdoors, you develop a repertoire of things you do throughout the seasons. My seasonal schedule is simple. Spring and early summer are for trout fishing here and in Ontario. In summer, I fly-fish for trout, chase walleyes and go trolling on Lake Superior. Then comes autumn bird hunting, including a South Dakota pheasant fling. November is reserved for deer hunting. During winter, I catch up on all the projects that fell by the wayside the rest of the year.

Enjoying seasonal outdoor activities means there always something new to anticipate and tempers the urge to roam. I'm very unlikely to give up my precious trout fishing or deer hunting time to head off somewhere and try something else. These activities are part of my very fiber and my annual participation in them mark waypoints in the passage of life.

Granted, I live in a place people from around the world visit on their vacations. Were I stuck in a city, my lifestyle would be different. But were it at all possible, I'd still seek out close-to-home outdoor experiences.

Grasslands: Going, Going, Nearly Gone

A new report from the Environmental Working Group and Defenders of Wildlife shows the United States lost 23 million acres of grasslands, shrub lands and wetlands between 2008 and 2011. Of the total, over 19 million acres of grassland habitat were converted to just three crops-corn, soybeans and winter wheat. Some of the greatest habitat losses occurred in Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Most pheasant hunters know grassland habitat losses are soon manifested in less abundant birds of all species. But the environmental costs of converting grass to black dirt also can be measured in more fertilizer-polluted run-off, more disastrous flooding and more soil erosion. An unseen cost is the ramped up energy use involved in farming and fertilizing the converted lands.

Many folks find it difficult to envision how farming affects the environment, but growing numbers of Americans are becoming aware of how farm subsidies affect their taxes. In this case, taxpayers-thanks to a farmer-friendly Congress-are footing most of the bill. Driving much of the land conversion are federal subsidies to produce ethanol from corn and very generous crop insurance subsidies. According to the report, the federal government pays an average of 62 percent of farmer's crop insurance premiums and makes annual payments of $1.3 billion to insurance companies and their sales agents.

Crop insurance makes it less risky to plant marginal ground and has no doubt been a driving force behind the land conversion. The bitter irony is much of this land was taken out of production during the last 25 years through the Conservation Reserve Program, another federal subsidy program intended to reduce farming's environmental effects by idling land that shouldn't have been farmed in the first place. CRP successfully reduced erosion and polluted run-off and was a tremendous boon to farmland wildlife. In the past, farm subsidies were often linked to payment limits, means testing and conservation requirements. This is not the case with crop insurance.

An Environmental Working Group analysis showed 26 unidentified policy holders received over $1 million in premium subsidies and over 10,000 growers who received over $100,000 in premium subsidies. According to the report, crop insurance premiums cost taxpayers $7.4 billion in 2011. At current rates, taxpayers will spend $90 billion in crop insurance subsidies over the next 10 years. It's possible crop insurance payments will undergo reform in the pending Farm Bill, but don't hold your breath for that to occur. For politicians of both parties, the real bottom line is this: Generous farm subsidies buy votes in the Heartland.

Airdate: August 17, 2012

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