Weekend Edition Sunday:
"Goodness, there's thousands of species that live in grasslands, including several hundred species of higher plants," says , an ecologist at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D. Plus, permanent grass cover keeps soil from washing away.This is one of the worst aspects of the biofuels-driven ag boom economy of the last six years. Big Picture Agriculture has featured some pictures of some of the worst examples of sensitive land being abused in an effort to cash in on the boom. Overall, it is tremendously depressing. As Kay notes in one of the posts, all the additional land contributes to overproduction, which contributes to price deflation, which risks pushing prices below cost of production. So we are destroying sensitive lands and destroying the ag economy at the same time. That is not good at all.
"With those deeps roots that grasses have, and thick thatch, the water has a hard time getting a hold of the soil," says Johnson.
So more land in CRP means cleaner streams, less fertilizer runoff and more carbon stored in the soil.
Back when Reynolds was showing me those duck eggs, there were 34 million acres enrolled in the CRP — an area roughly the size of the state of New York.
In recent years, though, the conservation reserve has shrunk by more than 25 percent, including those 1.6 million acres that farmers took out of the program this past year.
It's partly because Congress has cut funding for the program. But there's a more important reason: high grain prices.
Farmers have been making a lot of money recently growing corn, soybeans, and wheat. They're bidding up prices for land, and landowners are cashing in.
In southwestern Iowa, near the town of , the owners of about 60 acres decided to take it out of the CRP. They rented it instead to farmer Mark Peterson. "They felt that it would make more income for them, renting it out, than it would being in the CRP," says Peterson.
Peterson recognizes that "it is fragile ground," so he says he'll be extra careful with that land, which is on a hillside. Some parts are quite steep, and the soil could easily wash away.
He grew soybeans on it this year, but he tried to disturb the soil as little as possible. And he'll plant cover crops in the off season to anchor the soil.
Ecologist Johnson, at South Dakota State University, says the shrinking Conservation Reserve is just one part of a larger trend: Farmers are ripping up other grasslands, too, including native prairie that never was plowed.
"I've seen things that I never thought I'd see here in South Dakota," he says. "With these land prices going up, there actually are people out there with Bobcats and front end loaders, pulling out the rocks in hundreds of acres of land that's been in pasture all these years."