Joe McCartin, MJLST Staff
In recent years, high crop and farmland prices, in combination with technological advances in agriculture, have pushed crop producers to convert virgin prairie at an alarming rate. Minnesota, for example, was once covered in prairie. Yet, today only 1% remains of the 18 million acres that once covered the state, and that too has come under threat. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that federal subsidies and crop insurance treated crops equally even if they were being grown in an ecologically destructive manner. A crop producer received taxpayer support even for corn and soybeans grown on virgin prairie that had just been plowed-under. These were often areas once considered marginal for crop production, but they held enormously high value for wildlife and helped protect water quality from other agricultural erosion and pesticide and fertilizer pollution.
The recently passed Farm Bill, the Federal Agricultural Reform and Risk Management Act of 2014, included a new program, Sodsaver, proposed by Ducks Unlimited and advanced by a diverse array of organizations, from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited to the Union of Concerned Scientists and the World Wildlife Fund. The program aims to shift the incentives that make the plowing of virgin prairie so appealing. It works by preventing farmers from enrolling virgin prairie, land that has not been planted with crops previously, in the federal crop insurance program. Since subsidies will slowly be phased-out for most crops, preventing access to crop insurance will prevent taxpayers from footing the bill for the ecologically damaging process of planting on virgin prairie. By forcing farmers to rely entirely on free-market forces for crops grown on this land, Sodsaver hopes to make the often lucrative decision to plow the prairie riskier for crop producers. Unfortunately, the program was only implemented in a limited number of states that make up the Prairie Pothole Region – Minnesota, Montana, the Dakotas, Iowa, and Nebraska.
Because the program does not mandate that crop producers preserve their native, virgin prairie, but merely withholds taxpayer support if the decision is made, it is forecast to save taxpayers nearly $120 million over 10 years. These savings could grow substantially if the program had not been limited to a handful of states. However, the important question remains unanswered, will this change the behavior of crop producers. While removing crop insurance coverage seems to be a logical first step in stemming the tide of prairie loss, it is only a first step. Whether it will be enough will depend heavily on crop prices and actions by grassland states to protect and restore these priceless ecological resources. A diverse array of migratory waterfowl and songbirds very survival depends on the success of Sodsaver in these trial states, and the program’s expansion into all grassland states.
The author served on the Policy Council of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, one of the supporters of the Sodsaver program.