Since 1985, farmers and environmentalists have become agricultural conservation policy allies. This alliance reflects the capacity to evolve a policy design that bridged the growing disconnect between traditional agricultural conservation designs and the systems approach that is the conceptual foundation of the environmental policy community. This article investigates the role of evolving language adaptation, as reflected in five policy-design elements, played in facilitating the alliance.
Prior to the adaptation, the environmental community posed a serious threat to the agricultural community because it identified farmers' use of pesticides as a major threat to the environment (Carson, 1962; Galton, 1963). The adversarial relationship is illustrated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) criticism of Rachel Carson's conclusions in The Silent Spring (Graham, 1970, p. 50). The characterization of the farmer as a polluter was dangerous because it threatened the perception that goes back to Jefferson of the yeoman farmer as having a higher moral position than other economic actors.
What occurred with agricultural conservation policy between 1985 and 1996 was an adaptation from a focus on narrowly defined specific problems (e.g., soil erosion) to a systems approach that focused on a complex set of interacting problems (soil erosion, water quality, habitat diversity, and human health). Central to this adaptation was the ability to develop and utilize a language and a set of rationales that vastly expanded the content of agricultural conservation. The language adaptations facilitated development of evolving policy designs that incorporated systems rationales that made it possible for the agricultural policy community to develop alliances with the environmental policy community as well as wildlife conservation groups and others.
The following analysis lays out the evolution of language that helped the agricultural policy community expand its base of support and respond to the evolving understanding of the natural environment (ecosystems), while maintaining government economic support and a high degree of implementation flexibility. The agricultural policy community has its roots in the early days of the Republic and its continuing priority concern has been the economic well-being of farmers. What occurred between 1985 and 1996 reflected the community's political adaptability while maintaining traditional policy goals.
This article fits into the family of research that uses language and argument to study politics and policies (Edelman, 1985; Fischer, Frank, & Forester, 1993; Hunter, 1990; Kingdon, 1984; Stone, 1988). Alternatively identified as rhetorical analysis, discourse analysis, issue framing, social construction, and cognitive theory, these approaches assume that the strategic use of language shapes the definitions of problems, the nature of inquiry, the outcome of research, and the politics surrounding issues (Boynton, 1989, 1990, 1991a, 1991b; Burke, 1969; Chock, 1991, 1995; Chock & Wyman, 1986; Cvetkovich & Earle, 1994; Daniels, 1997; Ferguson, 1987; Gusfield, 1981; Ingram & Schneider, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1997; Kennedy, 1984; McClosky, 1985; Nelson, 1998; Nelson, Megill, & McClosky, 1987; Rein, & Schon, 1993; Selzer, 1993; Sidney, 2001; Simons, 1990; Throgmorton, 1996).
The policy-design framework developed by Ingram and Schneider used in this article incorporates many of these language-based insights into its analytical categories. Schneider and Ingram's policy-design framework offers two attractive features for understanding the changes in conservation policy: first, a way to investigate the interplay of multiple factors in the process of policy change, and second, a structure that gives major emphasis to the substantive content of policy. Thus, it offers a way to escape the deficiencies of many theories of policy change that focus on a single or small number of explanatory variable(s), and it recognizes the importance of the constraints and opportunities that flow from a changing policy context, for example, the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.
This paper uses five elements of policy design: (i) the construction of problems; (ii) the identification of goals; (iii) the agents responsible for the formulation and implementation of policies; (iv) the tools chosen by policy communities to implement policies; and (v) the rationales and assumptions that explain the relationships between the preceding elements (Schneider & Ingram, 1997).
The primary information sources are three USDA Agricultural Information Bulletins (AIBs). These bulletins describe the USDA's characterization of conservation policies in the 1985, 1990, and 1996 farm bills. This was a period of major agricultural conservation policy adaptation. The adaptation involved integration of the systems concepts of the environmental community as the framework for conservation policy design. The AIBs reflect the agriculture community's understanding of the changing policy designs. Thus, their language provides the most direct indicator of the adaptation process.
As used here, policy communities consist of those actors that have a continuing interest in a particular policy sector and manifest continuous policymaking participation. A policy sector denotes a set of activities for which formal policy exists (e.g., agriculture) (Kash, 1989, pp. 90-97).
Prior to 1985, the agricultural and environmental policy communities' design elements, for the most part, were juxtaposed. The problems and goals of the two communities were contradictory and the agents and rationales incorporated into each community's policies were independent of one another (Hansen, 1991; Landy, Roberts, & Thomas, 1994).
Farmers' problems were primarily economic, ever increasing production costs and an oversupply of agricultural goods led to decreased farm incomes (Hurt, 2002; Ilg, 1995; Long, 1987). Erosion of topsoil was also a problem, but it was seen as related to long-term productivity, not to environmental degradation. Agriculture's main policy goals, then, were maintenance of farmers' incomes and long-term productivity.
The key agents and institutions for farm policy were the various government entities (e.g., USDA, Agriculture Committees of Congress) that formulated and implemented policies aimed at providing adequate income. The tools of primary concern to farmers were financial incentives and technical assistance (e.g., subsidies, products of research and development).
For environmentalists, the problems were environmental degradation from human, industrial, and agricultural pollution (Dunlap, 1981). The policy goals were protection of ecosystems and improved environmental health (Davies & Davies, 1975; Fiorino, 1995; Rosenbaum, 1994). President Nixon's letter to Congress explaining the need for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) articulated the environmental community's viewpoint on the issues of pollution (Nixon, 1970):
Despite its complexity, for pollution control purposes the environment must be perceived as a single, interrelated system. Present assignments of departmental responsibilities do not reflect this interrelatedness. Many agency missions, for example, are designed primarily along media lines--air, water, and land. Yet the sources of air, water, and land pollution are interrelated and often interchangeable. A single source may pollute the air with smoke and chemicals, the land with solid wastes, and a river or lake with chemical and other wastes. Control of the air pollution may produce more solid wastes, which then pollute the land or water. Control of the water-polluting effluent may convert it into solid wastes, which must be disposed of on land. Similarly, some pollutants--chemicals, radiation, pesticides--appear in all media. Successful control of them at present requires the coordinated efforts of a variety of separate agencies and departments. The results are not always successful.
Nixon's letter also referred to the effect of the aforementioned pollutants on the "ecological chain." This language clearly reflects the concerns of the environmental community that the effects of pollution on the environment were systemic. An essential ingredient in the development of a farmer-environmentalist alliance was the integration of elements of the systems rationale seen in environmental policy designs into the USDA's conservation policies.
The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) of 1972 represents one of the early pieces of legislation influenced by the environmental community. The following summary identifies some of the major design elements in the FWPCA, and they are used to provide a basis for following the integration of environmental design criteria into agricultural conservation policies.
The Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was the first major piece of legislation addressing water pollution (WPCA, 1948). In 1972, after the passage of the National Environmental Protection Act in 1969 and the formation of the EPA in 1970, the FWPCA was amended. The act offers a particularly good vehicle for identifying the policy concerns, goals, and implementation strategies and thus the design criteria preferred by the new environmental policy community.
The primary goal of the legislation as stated in Title I was "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters" (FWPCA, 1972, p. 816). Other goals related to this were to (i) eliminate discharge of pollutants into navigable waters; (ii) "maintain water quality which provides for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and provides for recreation in and on the water"; (iii) prohibit discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts; (iv) provide financial assistant to construct waste treatment facilities; (v) develop plans for states to control sources of pollutants; and (vi) develop technology to eliminate discharge of pollutants (FWPCA, 1972). These goals shape the rationales and assumptions that connect together the design elements.
As stated at the beginning of the 1972 amendments, the main assumption was that, in an ecological system, chemical, physical, and biological components were interdependent. For example, chemical changes (e.g., water pollution) affected the biological components (e.g., fish kills). This systems logic had major implications for policy. Organizationally, any agency that addressed pollution had to have the …