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Conversions to farmland threaten S.D.

Peter Harriman
Argus Leader

published: 4/8/2003

State wildlife director foresees harm in trend

The largest contiguous stretch of prime waterfowl nesting habitat in the
United States is being converted to farmland at a rate that could have a
devastating effect on South Dakota's wildlife, landscape and water quality,
says the state's top wildlife official.

John Cooper, director of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and
Parks, says federal farm policies and advances in technology make it more
attractive for ranchers and farmers to till land -Êespecially for soybeans -
than use it for grazing or conservation programs.

That's the same land that is most beneficial for ducks and other waterfowl to
hatch their young.

"All of us have to ask ourselves as a society, ÔIs this the highest and best
use of this land?' " he says.

Farmers and ranchers point to the economic reality of the situation and say
they have to make a living off their land.

It's a combination of events that threatens to accelerate the conversion of
grasslands to farming.

The state has lost nearly 1.1 million acres of rangeland and pasture in the
last two decades, says Kurt Forman, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service in Brookings.

He says federal soybean subsidies and prolonged drought, which has forced
cattle producers to drastically reduce herds, are driving ranchers in
north-central South Dakota to become farmers.

"When cattle get in a truck and move off the landscape, that landscape is in
much higher jeopardy of being converted to cropland," Forman says.

Grasslands conversion

The threat to grasslands could extend West River, where even optimistic
growers acknowledge the climate and soil is unsuitable for soybeans, Forman

But by 2005, Roundup-ready wheat is expected to hit the market.

Much like the Roundup-ready soybeans which spread in recent years, the
genetically engineered wheat grows a massive circulatory system that allows
it to withstand the strangling effect of the herbicide glyphosate. That
herbicide was first sold by Monsanto under the tradename Roundup.

Roundup kills plants with normal circulatory systems. Grassland can be readily
converted to wheat, which can tolerate West River growing conditions, by
spraying a tract with glyphosate and seeding Roundup-ready wheat into the
dead grass. The rationale for doing so is a federal wheat subsidy of $3 a

"I know some guys by Midland. They're ranchers. They don't want to farm,
but this drought is just killing them," Cooper says. "They say: ÔWhen the
drought hits us, it takes away a lot of our flexibility and choices. We are
limited in what we can do to stay here. If I can put in soybeans and winter
wheat, I may have to look at that.' "

Two other factors add even more pressure to convert grass to cropland.

Cooper says farmers and ranchers face pressure from bankers who look at
crop subsidies and urge them to change cow-calf operations to bean and
wheat farms in order to get operating loans.

Ranchers say it's an economic decision. Often, it makes more sense to plant
soybeans because there's more money in it.

Tonya Ness, executive director of the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association,
points out "the average age of a producer in South Dakota is over 60 years

"They are looking at fighting livestock in winter versus farming, which is a
five-month deal. What's the first thing to go? Dairy cattle, because they are
the most labor intensive. Pigs are next, then cows."

Terry Howard of Miller raises hogs and cattle and grows corn, barley, and
soybeans. He said existing laws against sodbusting are inadequate. "There
seems to be no limit about what can be broken up," said Howard, 56. "There
is a very large area that was native grassland that's been tore up over my

Incentives to grow soybeans

From 1930 to 1996, the agricultural economy of South Dakota was driven by
ranching, Forman says.

"Since 1996, it has been driven by row crop and small grain agriculture," he
says. "You can imagine the ripple effect that is going to have on politics and

Last year, the Environmental Working Group of Washington, D.C., compiled a
list of crop subsidy recipients nationwide to show the degree to which U.S.
agriculture is the creature of those subsidies.

Beginning with the soybean subsidies in the 1996 farm bill, "a powerful
message was sent to South Dakota farmers. Uncle Sam is in the soybean
market - big time," says Ken Cook, EWG director.

From 1996 to 2001, South Dakota soybean acreage increased from 2.7 million
to 4.5 million acres, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. In
those six years, 28,554 soybean growers in the state were paid more than
$414 million in federal subsidies.

Congress is not expected to revisit the farm bill subsidies until 2006.

While the federal farm bill passed last year does include money to increase
the land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program from 36 million acres
to 40 million acres nationally, that is more than offset by the crop subsidies.

In South Dakota, CRP pays landowners an average of $40 per acre to take
land out of production and plant it with native cover or other vegetation
beneficial to wildlife. A study done by Texas A&M, Colorado State and
University of Idaho researchers, however, shows with federal subsidies
farmers realize a net gain of $130.28 over operating costs per acre of

"That puts good landowners in a real pickle," Cooper says. "They say: ÔYou
know, I'd like to do more conservation measures on my land. But I look at my
taxes. I look at my overhead. I'm trying to put my kids through school, I'm
trying to buy a decent vehicle for mom, and, man, it's tough for me to keep
my grass when I can turn around and pick up that very high soybean
subsidy.' It's tough to pass that up."

As much as 60 percent of the ducks produced in North America come from
North and South Dakota, says Paul Bultsma, a wildlife biologist with Ducks

"What we are doing in the two Dakotas is of magnum importance," he says.

"In a soybean field, you will have one nest per every several hundred acres.
On grazed land, it is a nest every 10 to 20 acres. And on CRP land, it is one
per three acres. That draws the picture of the value of grass."

Forman says the most profound effect of the loss of grasslands on waterfowl
is in counties such as Hand, Hyde, Faulk, Edmunds and McPherson.

¤ In Hand County soybean acreage skyrocketed from 4,400 acres in 1996 to
96,000 by 2001. In Hyde County it went from 2,000 acres in 1997 to 14,000
acres in 2001.

¤ In Faulk County, the increase was from 19,000 acres in 1996 to 114,000 in

¤ In Edmunds County, soybean acreage soared from 4,500 acres in 1996 to
130,000 acres.

¤ McPherson County recorded a large increase, from 6,200 acres in 1998 to
40,000 acres.

Barren land, scraped dry

Not all the dramatic growth of soybean acreage reflects land converted from
grass to crops. Some is existing cropland shifted from corn and small grains
to soybeans. But the numbers do indicate the powerful pressure soybean
subsidies bring to bear on farming decisions. There are no corresponding
subsidies for livestock produced on range, Ness says.

"It's a tough thing to subsidize. How can you document it?" she asks. With
cattle, "you can't go to the elevator and get a pink slip" of bushels grown.

The introduction of Roundup-ready wheat combined with the spread of
soybeans could have a adverse affect on the environment, Cooper says.

He predicts a landscape scarred by wind and water erosion and watersheds
laden with increased loads of sediment and nutrients that will fuel unchecked
weed growth and algae blooms.

""I think we will have a significant ecological impact," he says.

The Big Sioux and James River drainages are designated critical habitat for
the Topeka Shiner, a federally designated endangered species across much
of its range. But South Dakota has virtually no restrictions rising from the
Endangered Species Act, because the shiner is plentiful in most tributary
streams in the state, says Jeff Shearer, a GF&P fisheries biologist.

"Most of the land along those streams is grazed, not farmed," he says.

If those watersheds are degraded and shiner numbers plummet, things will
change, Cooper says. Restrictions on land use are a real possibility.

Protecting wildlife

The Endangered Species Act has been "pushed hard and beat on" by every
presidential administration in the three decades since it was passed, Cooper
says. "They don't like the act. But I'm a realist. I see most of that act still in
place, with few substantial changes."

The Topeka shiner is not the only creature dependent upon a reasonably
healthy prairie ecosystem.

"When you start to lose pasture and grassland resources, you start to have
dire impacts on ground nesting prairie birds," Cooper says.

Ducks Unlimited sees South Dakota as critical waterfowl habitat. While a
sluggish economy makes fund raising challenging, in the next 20 years DU
wants to protect 100,000 acres in the Dakotas by soliciting conservation

It wants to buy easements on another 1,828 million acres, and it wants to
move 72,000 acres through its Revolving Land Program, says Joe Satrom, DU
director of lands protection. Critical but degraded wetland habitat is bought,
rehabilitated and sold to individuals or public agencies who guarantee to
preserve it. The proceeds are used to buy more land.

DU has 3,373 acres of donated conservation easements and it has
purchased 285,000 acres of such easements. The organization has 21,052
acres in the RLP and has sold 5,029 acres of restored wetlands.

"Grasslands, like those in Hyde and Hand Counties, are an investment that is
good for waterfowl, wildlife and grassland-based agriculture," Satrom says.
"It preserves ranching, and that's important to us in terms of the tremendous
compatibility of cows and ducks.

"We've had excellent success establishing relationships with one or two
producers in an area and have had others say, ÔI would like to emulate that
relationship' with conservation easements, a grazing system (beneficial to
waterfowl) or wetland restoration."

The case for grasslands preservation is not often articulated in Congress,
says Cooper, but it is a compelling argument.

"People always discount good quality water and soil. But I'll tell you, when
people come to this state to hunt or fish, they remark that they wish they
had this kind of quality of life where they come from."

Reporter Ben Shouse contributed to this article. Reach Peter Harriman at
575-3615 or [email protected].

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2,332 Posts
There's not really much you can do. If farmers can make more money by farming the land than by enrolling it in CRP or leaving it for pasture, then they're going to farm it. Right now the best thing to do would be to write your reps and tell them to support permanent wetland protection through the Clean Water Authority Restoration act.

Other than that there's not a whole lot we can do at this point. I don't think that the farm bill is going to come up for sometime since they just revisted it in 2002. The next time it does appear we all need to support the conservation appropiations of it like increasing total acres enrolled in CRP and possibly increasing the payments on CRP to keep up with all the new round-up ready crops.

It all comes down to where a farmer can make more money...if it's by planting CRP on parts of that back quarter that doesn't produce, then that's what they'll do. If it's by farming that same quarter, then that's what they'll do.

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Wait a minute. I'm a little confused. I always thought that if it was too dry to grow crops, the choice was grazing cattle or other livestock. That's why the farther west you go, the less farming and more ranching there is. Now the ranchers are going to grow crops where they can't grow grass? What's wrong with this picture?

Can anyone explain this?

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If theres no grass and water there won't be cattle. But the Farm Program will pay for land you put seed in the ground. One farmer put in wheat in late June last summer. The field was covered in weeds and leafy spurge. He didn't spray or break it up. He just no tilled the seed in, he still gets his payment. It isn't the Farmer's fault, its the system. They're just trying to stay afloat.

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Fetch, the long and short of it is, there are a lot of catch 22's in life. In the past ten years we have seen some amazing developements, that have been good for farmers and for the environment, at least marginally. Yet these same things are allowing things to happen that may in the end be more damaging than the original problem. The old cure is worse than the disease thing.

The farm bill was good from the standpoit of increasing CRP, putting a new program called the Conservation Security Program into place, and in general greatly increasing conservcation spending. At the same time it raises price supports for crops and makes it even more crucial to produce as many bushels as the farmers can.

CRP grows in acres, while at the same time managed haying and grazing will have a major impact on the value of the CRP placed on the land. It is now a forage management program, not a Consrevation Reserve Program.

Increased $ are available to encourage adoption of no-till, saving soil and improving water quality, and likely wildlife habitat. This same farming practice saves so much moisture that it allows land which was previously unfarmable to become worthwhile to break up. I saw a paper given that said the reason new development of CRP in ND has not grown duck pupulations is that in the best areas, much of the gain is affset by grass being planted to crops. Except for terrain issues, land is grazed with livestock unless there is something more profitable to do with it. Today there is, and it will get worse if roundup wheat becomes available.

The real issue, I feel, is that the US rural area mangement agenda has focused on minimizing depopulation by encouraging commodity production in situations that did not justify it, just to keep towns alive. Hey, I love the idea of family farms more than many of you, yet the policies that this country has followed for the past fifty years have simply encouraged an orderly outmigration, rather than a mass displacement. What is nescessary to preserve both our rural populace and our environment is a major rethinking of how we do business in the countryside. I look at the EU and see things like payments to maintain buildings rather than tax breaks depreciating new ones. Subsidies for providing "Green Space" rather than for producing another bushel of corn. Or planting seed into ground you know will never grow just to qualify for crop insurance. Support small farms for real rather than just offer lip service.

This gets away from what the article says I know, but the thing that strikes me in this article, as well as the one from Mr. Deans website, is that in rural America, we seem always to be fighting battles to stem a tide in a losing war. The doctrines that worked 50 years ago will likely not get us through the next fifty to where we want to be. To fix some of these issues may take major policy changes that will be painful to everyone. This farm bill looked wonderful at the outset, and I am sure many toasts were drunk by the lobbyists who influenced it. But already half the funding for CSP has been stolen, and it looks like many of the programs will be so late in funding that absolutely nothing will be put on the ground this year in many areas. Get where I am saying win a battle lose a war?

I dont have the answers, I wish I did. I have some ideas, but the vested interests see no reason to change. It will take a major grass roots movement from sportsmen, farmers, environmentalists, and likely yes commercial interests to make some of the changes that are truly nescessary. But we all know the public trust doctrine is being subjucated to commercail interests, and more and more so are the economic lives of the farmers of this country. Farmers rise and fall by learning the tricks to how to "Farm the Programs". Dont play the game get out. The last several years every dollar in profit my farm made was governemtn payment. I think we were very good farmers, and yet without subsidies we were breaking even. Remove those subsidies, and you will see an upset in the rural countryside that would make the Great Depression look like a wekend tea party. There would literally be 1/4 the operating farms in a couple of years I think. Pardon my rambling, you all know by now that this is how I think and write, and in all honesty, I have been in a bit of a funk over some of the things that have been happening.(Plus I was sure I was going to draw that bighorn tag, and I checked to day and I didnt. I was so sure.....)

Suffice it to say, this farm bill and administration is not all it is cracked up to be from a conservation standpoint, and if things are as good as they are today in five years I will be very well pleased. :beer:

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All I can say is it makes no sense to see rural America going away - the farms & farmsteads going to waste & small towns barely hanging on :eyeroll:

I sure wish there was a way to reverse the trend

Why people live in Big cities is beyond me - GF is Big enough for me maybe to big ???

It's to bad we can't just start over & have a new homestead revival - incentives to live in rural America - scale everything back again ???

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Travis, you say that it is not the farmer's fault when he knowingly plants a crop that is sure to fail just so that he can make an insurance claim. I don't buy that. It sounds like fraud to me. It is sort of like the scammers who jump in front of slow moving cars just to make a huge insurance claim.


I appreciate your insight on what's really ailing rural America. There was an article in the Minneapolis StarTribune this last week about efforts in Washington to turn around the depopulation of rural areas. Did you see it?

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I kind of agree with the thought that people will not come to a small town in ND unless there are jobs available there. If I am wrong I wish someone would explain it to me. We need to get industry or businesses in there first and then the people will come! Maybe I don't have enough of an entreprenuerial spirit. Maybe some of the younger guys on this site have better insight as to what could keep them in the state and not necessarily the Fargos, Bismarks, etc. What would draw you to live in Leeds, Wishek, or the smaller areas (besides the outdoor experience).
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