In the Northern Great Plains, land is a hot commodity. Large farm operations have bought up more than a million acres of grasslands in recent years, putting them to the plow despite the land’s poor suitability for agriculture.
This widespread conversion of prairie to cropland has profound effects on the natural environment and human communities of the region.
Industrial monoculture farming is resource intensive, and run-off can pollute waterways. Wetlands are drained and wildlife habitat is decimated. When native sod is plowed under, tons of carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. In addition, the exodus of smaller-scale ranchers in favor of big agricultural concerns means the flattening of community life.
“As we go to monoculture and lose diversity, there are going to be a number of species that are not going to have the habitat to live on,” said Jim Faulstich, a farmer and rancher in Highmore, South Dakota. And changes to his community are already clear. “In an area where 45 years ago there was a school in every township, due to the loss of people on the land that’s all gone.”
Why grasslands are disappearing
The incentives for farming these marginal lands—long used instead for ranching—are high commodity prices and robust government support for their crops.
“Whenever any land comes for sale, it’s not livestock people buying these operations up, it’s big farms that are getting bigger,” said Faulstich “The goal of people in the farming business in this day and age apparently is to farm tens of thousands of acres with huge equipment and the security of the government program for crop insurance.”
Part of the problem, according to Lyle Perman, a fourth-generation rancher in Lowry, South Dakota, is the disparity between the comprehensive, government-subsidized insurance options available to farmers and the relatively paltry support available to ranchers.
“The lack of good risk protection for ranches contributes to the demise of our grasslands,” he said. “If you were my banker, and I showed you what I could protect my grasslands for, versus what I could protect it for by plowing it up to plant a crop, you’d tell me, ‘you better plow it up.’”
A fighting chance for the Northern Great Plains
WWF is advocating for measures in the next Farm Bill—currently being debated in Congress—to mitigate this land conversion trend and the threats it poses.
The proposed changes in the bill would promote conservation practices on working lands, reduce the likelihood of grassland conversion to cropland, and ensure that soil and wetlands conservation are part of the farm safety net. A historic compromise among key conservation and agricultural interest groups will establish workable soil and wetland conservation requirements for subsidies on crop insurance premiums.
WWF’s advocacy on the Farm Bill aims to help keep the grasslands where they are, protect wetlands, and give the communities of the northern Great Plains a fighting chance.