Grasslands Go Under the Plow in the Prairie Pothole Region
An article in the May 27 edition of Harvest Public Media, an online news outlet devoted to news about agriculture, amounts to first-hand evidence of the destruction of the iconic Prairie Pothole Region – an oasis of grassland and wetlands in North America.
“The Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge's 10,000 acres of prairie in Stutsman County are a haven for migrating birds looking for a place to rest, or nest, in the increasingly plowed-up landscape,” wrote Emily Guerin, a North Dakota-based reporter for Inside Energy, part of Prairie Public Broadcasting. “Neil Shook, the refuge manager, says the area looks completely different than it did five years ago. Now, cultivated fields line the roads where before grasslands stretched for miles.”
Guerin quoted Stutsman County rancher Denny Ova as saying he plowed up land that taxpayers had paid to keep in grass through the Conservation Reserve Program because “if you’re only getting $50 an acre of CRP, but you could rent it to the neighbor for $80, you’re going to do that.”
Guerin’s story lays the blame, rightly, on the federal mandate to produce more corn ethanol. That mandate, which went into effect in 2007, is one reason corn prices boomed. And higher prices created a powerful incentive for increased corn planting. Corn acreage in Stutsman County expanded by more than 50 percent between 2007 and 2013.
But the over-subsidized federal crop insurance program also deserves a big share of the blame. Federal crop insurance payouts are so large and so frequent that they take the risk out of plowing up grasslands and wetlands that most people wouldn’t plant otherwise, because crops often don’t survive the region’s weather extremes and fragile soil.
EWG’s Boondoggle report, published in April, highlights one of the perils of the crop insurance program for the Prairie Pothole region. The program’s so-called prevented planting coverage pays farmers when they can’t plant land in the spring because it’s too wet – as is normal in a landscape dotted with small wetlands.
Between 2007 and 2013, farmers in Stutsman County received almost $86 million in prevented planting payments because their fields had “excess moisture,” meaning, standing water. According to EWG’s 2013 Going, Going, Gone! report, Stutsman County alone plowed up more than 11 percent of its wetlands and wetland buffers for cropland during this time.
The eyewitness testimony in the Harvest Public Media story buttresses a recent study by environmental researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The research team found that 6 million acres of grassland had been converted to cropland between 2008 and 2012. This conclusion squared with EWG’s Going, Going, Gone! report, which documented that between 2008 and 2012, 1.9 million acres of wetlands and surrounding areas had been converted to cropland, with most of that conversion taking place in the Dakotas.
Crop insurance is subsidizing the destruction of grassland and wetlands at a cost of billions to taxpayers and untold damage to the environment. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency must undertake fundamental reform of the flawed federal prevented planting program before it wastes more dollars and destroys more wildlife habitat.