Leo Widicker farms outside Bowdon, North Dakota. Last winter, Widicker had a quarter section—160 acres—that was badly wind-eroded from several dry summers and snowless winters during which there was no ground cover. Much of the topsoil had blown into a highway ditch. In May, a hopeful Widicker planted that quarter section in wheat.

A crew came to clear Widicker’s topsoil out of the ditch and haul it three miles away. After they’d hauled forty truckloads without making a dent in the accumulation, the crew chief, a friend, asked Widicker if there weren’t some closer place to dump the dirt. Widicker’s wheat crop was up about four inches, so the crew chief didn’t want to just blade the dirt back up onto the field.

Then Widicker remembered a little slough, about two-tenths of an acre, in the northwest corner of the quarter, right up against the highway. Nothing had ever grown there. It seemed like the perfect place to put the dirt, and he even said he’d help. He brought his tractor down that night and worked the dirt for a couple of hours, and then came back the next day to work with the crew.

Dave DeWald, with the Bismarck office of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), an arm of the USDA, had been in the area and observed the filling of the slough. The next day he talked with Widicker, telling him that he had in effect “converted” his wetland. The 1985 Food Security Act says that a commodity crop may not be planted in a converted wetland, and “converted” means “manipulated in any way.” Widicker wasn’t in trouble yet, DeWald told him, but he would be if he planted a cereal crop on the land, which would be a violation of the “Swampbuster” act. According to DeWald, the local conservationist also talked to Widicker, reiterating that grass seed on the converted wetland would be okay, but that even a nurse crop, or cover crop, in the grass seed would count as a commodity crop and would be a violation. Widicker seems to have agreed to the stipulation.

He was serious about seeding that fresh dirt, though, before it blew away again, and the ditch, too, the more he thought about it—but the crew didn’t have a seed drill. Widicker happened to have one, and also some grass seed mix that included a little barley. Barley is a common cover, used to protect unmaintained grass from harsh sun and wind as it gets a roothold in the soil. Widicker himself seeded the highway ditches and then turned to his little patch of slough.

Well, that bariey did him in. When it was discovered, the SCS informed the ASCS (Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, another USDA arm), which has little flexibility in the penalties it must impose. The ASCS informed Widicker that he would have to give back the $7,300 in commodity price supports they had already given him (plus $225 in interest), that he would not receive the remaining $12,500 that he had been promised, and that any Farm Home Administration loans he had might be endangered, along with his Federal Crop Insurance.

Widicker appealed to the local ASCS board in Fessenden, fifteen miles north. His protest was predictable—that he had never intended to harvest the barley, as the rest of the field was in wheat, and that in including it in the mix he had simply been following the USDA’s long-standing, ecologically sound prescription to include a nurse crop with grass that won’t receive much maintenance. According to him, the local board sympathized, but still. Congress had made the law and Widicker had broken it. There was no turning back.

Then Widicker went to the ASCS office and got them to appraise his little former slough. They found the barley there so sparse that it would have produced only twelve-hundredths of a bushel per acre, and the little patch of wetland would produce slightly less than a quart of barley.

Now, maybe there’s no moral here, except that the government never kids around, and Leo Widicker should have known that. There are also some who find modern farm programs, in their pachydermal incomprehensibility, laughable, and perhaps those people are right—perhaps farmers don’t deserve special aid, any more than other artifacts of American culture, such as Avon ladies and Good Humor men. There are some who might say that Leo Widicker didn’t lose any money, he just didn’t get all the government handouts he’d counted on, and they may be right.

But there is a farm program, farmers have learned to count on it, and it hit Leo Widicker with a nuclear flyswatter. Dave DeWald admits that the penalties are too stiff. He says that in the 1990 farm bill Congress will attempt to pro-rate the violations, make the punishment fit the crime, so to speak. For now, though, that badey Leo Widicker may have planted knowing he was breaking the law but planted because he’s a conscientious husbandman—that quart of barley, about enough to make a pot of soup—may cost him his farm.