I live in St. Joseph County, Michigan. That’s the third county east of Lake Michigan, on the Indiana border. Residents describe it as “40 minutes east of Notre Dame”. The county has 60,000 residents, and our claim to fame is that we have more irrigated cropland than any other county east of the Mississippi.
We have more navigable waterways than any other county in the Great Lake State, and our sandy soil is the perfect place to grow seed corn—the hybrid kernels raised by Monsanto, Pioneer, and others to sell to the nation’s farmers. Easy-to-access water and soil that drains well are key to growing seed corn. This specialty crop pays extremely well, too.
Irrigated farmland is now selling north of $12,000 per acre, and property taxes from all that ag land primes the pump of our county government. Common sense dictates good stewardship of our water and soil. Yet, last month, the county commission proposed eliminating the entire budget for our Soil and Conservation District.
Why did our elected leaders even consider cutting a relatively small amount? It was because they had to piece together savings to cover an unexpected bill–$150,000 in new costs attributed to the Affordable Care Act. After our farmers revolted, the county commission decided to dip into its fund balance to keep the Soil and Conservation District going for another year. But that is a stop gap measure.
We are a rural county with limited resources and a finite fund balance. If health care costs continue to go through the roof, other services are going to be cut. Too often conservation and sustainable practices are the first to hit the trash bin because those expenditures are long term investments, often without an immediate return. Obviously, that compounds costs in the future.
ACA was supposed to lower costs by spreading them across a broader segment of the population. Not only is that incorrect, but we will soon see out-of-proportion opportunity costs as local and state governments divert budgeted funds away from other services, like conservation, to cover the fees and increased premiums for mandated coverage.
Public policy is rife with unintended consequences. A measure of humility and honesty is how quickly our elected leaders will act to prevent those consequences. I, for one, don’t want conservation to be one of those consequences.