New Realities For The Farm Bill

A tightening federal budget and record prices for crops spell trouble for waterfowl habitat.

Last January, I closed the duck season on a stretch of the Platte River just where it leaves Wyoming. Most years, it's a good late-season hole--it never freezes; there's corn stubble in the bottomland on either side and a refuge not far upstream. If all the mallard blood I've shed in this place were collected and pumped into the river at one time, the water would turn pink.


I hauled my spread to a little backwater where the decoys would ride well. By dawn, I had a couple dozen mallard blocks in the water and a dozen goose shells up on the gravel bar. I hunkered under a cutbank with some burlap for a cover and watched the sky.


The temperature was in free fall, and about an hour after shooting light, it started to snow, big, goose-down flakes that settled on the backs of all the decoys. As it turned out, I saw one bunch of geese and half a dozen goldeneye, none of which were remotely interested in working my spread.

My mind wanders on such days, alone, watching a gray sky for birds that never come. Somewhere in the free association, a tune often emerges from someplace far down in my subconscious, a scrap or two of music and words that drift by over and over.


That morning, it was an old song by Joni Mitchell--"Big Yellow Taxi"--remember it?

"They took all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum; and they charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em."

More empty sky, more snow, and the prairie river sliding silently by.

"Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?"

As I scanned the clouds, humming to myself, the images of other times when there were simply no birds came back to me. Sometimes, the cause was beyond human control--it's hard to make it rain when drought hits the northern prairies. But, for almost a generation from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, we found out what happens when there's no cover for waterfowl on the northern prairies. Maybe you've set decoys long enough to remember.

From 1982 through 1987, we had reasonable spring water conditions in the prairie potholes and some of the lowest duck populations on record. For the first two years of that period, populations of breeding mallards hovered around 6.4-million birds. In 1984, the population dropped to 5.4-million, and in 1985, during an above-average year for water on the prairies, the population fell below five-million birds for the only time on record. Average number of breeding mallards during this period--5.9-million birds.

Since 2002, water conditions in the potholes have been comparable to that span in the 1980s--not record-breaking, but generally above average, but the average mallard breeding population since 2002 has been 7.5-million birds. It's worth noting that farming on the U.S. side of the Canadian border has intensified and row crops like soybeans have spread into parts of the Dakotas where they were unknown in the 1980s. Even so, there have been a lot more breeding mallards in the 2000s than there were in the 1980s.

A careful look at the two periods would turn up a number of variables that affected waterfowl, but I think it's safe to say that an appreciable amount of the difference is USDA land retirement programs, which is to say, the conservation reserve, the wetland reserve, and the grassland reserve, along with other USDA conservation programs like WHIP, EQIP, and Sodsaver. Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that, thanks to CRP, "since 1992, net increases of about two-million additional ducks per year were produced in the prairie pothole region of North Dakota, South Dakota, and northeastern Montana."

This comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following waterfowl management over the last 20 years. I bring it up because the U.S. Farm Bill is in the process of being renewed, and the debate about the future shape and funding of the program has been intense. At the same time, market pressures have come to bear that will change the way any federal conservation programs that involve farmland will operate.

On the surface, the political problems with the Farm Bill boil down to cost. There are 11 titles in the bill that would involve spending. The programs vary from food stamps and "food for peace" to alternative energy and conservation. One of the most controversial of the lot is "commodities," a group of programs that is intended to insulate farmers from the effects of low prices for the commodities they grow and sell.

According government figures, the "baseline" cost of the current farm bill if it continued would be about $6.2-billion a year. About 70-percent of that would go for nutrition like food stamps and food for low-income folks. Another 12-percent would fund the bewildering variety of programs that protect farmers from low crop prices. A little less than eight-percent would support the USDA's conservation programs, including CRP, WRP, and the rest.

The Bush administration would like to trim funding for some of the commodity price supports and expand conservation programs. Congress seems to support the idea of more conservation funding but doesn't want to cut the price support budget. The President has threatened to veto the bill if the overall cost isn't reduced. We can hope the maneuvers that occur in the ongoing negotiations don't involve cuts in the conservation title, which remains a relatively small part of the overall farm bill's cost but delivers huge benefits, not only to hunters but to anyone with an interest in clean water and the preservation of productive land.

While the politicians wrangle over how much we're going to spend on the Farm Bill, the buying power of the final budget is being determined elsewhere. Spikes in the markets for field crops are steadily dissolving the realities that have defined conservation on farmland over the last 50 years.

In 2005, the average price of a bushel of field corn was $2. In 2006, the price rose to $3.04; in 2007, to $4.00. In January 2008, the average price for a bushel of corn was $4.28. On the Chicago Board of Trade, corn futures for May 2008 ran $5.27 a bushel.

In 2005, the average price of a bushel of wheat was $3.42. In 2006, it rose to $4.26; in 2007, to $6.65. In January 2008, the price stood at $8.55 with Durham topping out at $13.40. Board of Trade futures for May wheat are running $10.42 a bushel.

In 2005, the average price of a bushel of soybeans was $5.66. In 2006, it rose to $6.43; in 2007, to $10.40. In January 2008, the price stood at $11.00. May futures for soybeans in Chicago are running $12.64 a bushel.

The reasons for the increase vary with the crop. It was a bad year for wheat production in many parts of the world. A bumper crop next year could relieve some of the pressure on supplies and bring the market down a b

it.

The prices of corn and soybeans are being driven by a somewhat different phenomenon. Spiraling production of biofuels is increasing overall demand for both commodities. The world finds itself in the nasty situation that a number of observers have expected--a choice between food and fuel--and the price is responding. As long as biofuels are seen as our only response to oil shortages and climate change, the demand for these crops will probably remain strong and the price, high. It's a cruel irony that incentives in Title IX of the Farm Bill, the energy title, could cause significant problems for the conservation programs that make up Title II.

When a bushel of corn or soybeans costs more to grow than the market will pay for it, a farmer gets interested in government subsidies to fallow his fields, and he's probably not too choosy about the size of the payment, since retiring an acre of land doesn't involve much overhead. When commodity prices hit the levels they've reached in the last six months, his views on retiring acres are likely to change. The farm bill's budget won't touch nearly as many acres in this market as it did three or four years ago.

We're already seeing the effect of these market forces in the potholes. According to the Farm Services Agency, more than 400,000 acres of CRP land in North Dakota was plowed for crops in 2007 alone. South Dakota lost more than 300,000 acres of CRP last year; Montana lost more than 250,000 acres.

The loss isn't limited to CRP acres. Farm Services estimates that, in the prairie potholes, 50,000 acres of native prairie were plowed in 2007 alone. In the last five years, nearly 400,000 acres of pothole grasslands were broken, primarily for soybeans.

The increasing demand for land and the commodities it can produce, combined with the sky-high prices for those commodities, will make it almost impossible to maintain the base of cover that has supported prairie waterfowl and a host of other wildlife over the last 20 years. Those of us who care about these things face a challenge that may be unprecedented in the history of North American conservation.

Don't it always seem to go . . .

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