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Conservation farm bill will have unintended consequences

2350 Views 8 Replies 6 Participants Last post by  djleye
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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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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