September 27, 2013
A new report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency (FSA) shows that grasslands, woodlands, and other non-cropland are being rapidly converted to cropland across the country. In just one year (2011-2012), nearly 400,000 acres were “broken out” for crop production.
We have known for years that prairie acres are being broken out in the Midwest and plains states. What is particularly important about this new data is that it clearly shows that we are losing grassland across the entire country. In fact, the top ten states for loss of non-cropland include Texas (3), Florida (4), California (7), and Georgia (8).
The Senate version of the farm bill addresses this issue by including a national Sodsaver provision. Understanding that federal crop insurance decreases the risk of planting crops on non-cropland, the Senate bill limits the taxpayer subsidy for insurance premiums on land that is broken out from native grassland.
Crops planted on converted grasslands are subject to frequent loss; yet in its current form, the large federal subsidy for crop insurance premiums encourages this type of risk taking. Unfortunately, the House version of the farm bill includes only a watered-down regional Sodsaver provision that is limited to the Prairie Pothole Region of the United States. As these data very clearly demonstrate, grassland loss is a national issue, not a regional issue.
As the farm bill process moves forward, legislators from Texas, Kansas, Iowa, Florida, California and elsewhere in the nation should be wary: while producers may be taking advantage of high crop prices and taxpayer-subsidized insurance premiums today, several years down the line there may be little to no grassland left to support ranchers and hunters, prevent flooding and soil erosion, sequester carbon, and protect wildlife populations.
Given the ever-changing dynamics in Washington, it remains unclear whether or not Congress will be able to finalize a five-year farm bill reauthorization before the end of the calendar year. If it does, the final bill must include a national Sodsaver provision, as contained in the Senate-passed bill. Even in the case of another farm bill extension, however, a national Sodsaver provision is critical. We have now seen what one year of production subsidies and high crop prices looks like: 400,000 acres gone. This is a snapshot what is to come if we do not limit conversion incentives to protect this critical resource.