High crop prices a threat to nature?

(From an article by Josephine Marcotty, Star Tribune Newspaper)

Grain prices are tempting farmers to plow up protected land, even as conservation subsidies shrink.

…Experts say 2012 is likely to be a tipping point for conservation across the Upper Midwest. Some 300,000 acres in Minnesota — one fifth of the land now set aside through the CRP — will be up for grabs as federal contracts come up for renewal.

In the following years, millions more acres in Minnesota, North and South Dakota — critical prairie and wetland habitat for a fourth of the nation’s migratory birds — may also fall to the plow as farmers choose between leaving it to nature or converting it to cash crops. Many predict that nature will be the loser.

These choices loom just as concern about Minnesota’s lakes and rivers is on the rise and the state is embarked on a decades-long plan to improve water quality from Lake Pepin to the Red River.

And yet all the financial incentives for farmers — who control half of Minnesota’s land — are poised to move in the opposite direction.

Our Take:
Farmers make choices every day that help conserve natural resources.

For farmers, not everything is a line item. The value of good land, clean water and fresh air are things they don’t put a price on.

That said, not every acre of farmland is alike. Many of the acres put into Conservation Reserve 15 years ago were parked there to achieve another goal. Many acres were put in CRP to reduce the total volume of crops.  By preventing a surplus of commodities, this allowed farmers to make a modest profit from farming. Yes prairie grasses could be a good use for productive farmland under those conditions. But now, with prices that reflect the world’s increasing need for grain for both food and energy, a good number of those acres will come back into production once the current easements end.

This change doesn’t have to mean a loss for nature. If the government is steadfast about its commitment to fund 32 million acres of conservation reserve lands—that equals about a third of all US corn acres and about ten percent of the nation’s arable land—stronger crop prices will help rationalize the system. Farmers will more exclusively enroll marginal, non-productive, environmentally sensitive land, if the government continues to fund CRP. These are acres where the function of conservation is more properly achieved.

Though the commodity price ticker constantly moves up and down, this decade has seen what looks like a permanent rise in grain prices. We’ve heard gloom and doom before about how farmers will choose profits over conservation, but the reality is that a better valuation of crops in the market means that both the farmers and the government can more easily choose to spend money on conservation.

And farmers will choose to continue to invest in conservation. Among other things that farmers love, they love the land.

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