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Friday, October 11, 2013

Farmers Convert Prairie Into Cornfields

A pasture near Ord, Neb., in June 2012 before it was broken out for farmland. Wildlife biologist Ben Wheeler called it an extreme case of land being converted from grass to corn. (Wheeler/Pheasants Forever and Nebraska Game & Parks Commission via Harvest Public Media)

A pasture near Ord, Neb., in June 2012 before it was broken out for farmland.  (Wheeler/Pheasants Forever and Nebraska Game & Parks Commission via Harvest Public Media)

In recent years, farmers in the Midwest have transformed millions of acres of prairie grass into rows of corn.

High crop prices were the primary motivation, but some also believe crop insurance is encouraging farmers to roll the dice on less productive land.

A provision in the farm bill, which is still making its way through the halls of Congress, may help stem the tide.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Grant Gerlock of Harvest Public Media reports.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti in for Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW.

In recent years, farmers in the Midwest have transformed millions of acres of prairie grass into rows of corn. High crop prices are a major motivator. But crop insurance is also encouraging farmers to sow cornrows on less productive land.

A provision in the farm bill that's still making its way through the halls of Congress may help preserve some of that prairie land. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Harvest Public Media's Grant Gerlock reports.

GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: Rod Christen and his sister Kay farm corn, soybeans and some wheat on the family's land near the small town of Steinauer in Southeastern Nebraska. But Rod says their main crop is grass.

ROD CHRISTEN: Big bluestem is our big producer. It's kind of our Cadillac grass.

GERLOCK: Between two and three hundred cows and their calves graze year round on the Christens' native prairie pastures. We walk through yellow bunches of goldenrod and bluestem shimmering in the breeze. Christen says grass is both a natural resource and their farm's foundation.

CHRISTEN: Grass under management has the ability to store water and prevent erosion and provide wildlife habitat, which is all a side benefit because what keeps us in business is the feed value.

GERLOCK: Christen says this patch of pasture is virgin prairie. It's never been plowed. But in recent years, he says it's become common to see farmers take cattle off their pastures to plant more corn.

CHRISTEN: Even some steep, steep sloped and poor ground is being farmed.

GERLOCK: Just last year in Nebraska, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says nearly 55,000 acres of land that had never grown crops was broken out for farming. It was the most in the country, but the same thing is happening across other Midwestern states like South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas. Higher grain prices, spurred by the ethanol boom, set off a nationwide plow-up. If the crop thrives, farmers cash in. If it fails, they can lean on payments from insurance subsidized by the federal government.

A so-called sodsaver provision in the farm bill would change that. It would cut premium subsidies and lower the potential insurance payout on crops planted on newly plowed sod. And Traci Bruckner of the Center for Rural Affairs says that's one way to stop the destruction of prairie land.

TRACI BRUCKNER: Our view is that it should not be the government's job to help provide a guarantee on those acres. So if they want to do that, they're doing that at their own risk because it was a good risk to take.

KAY CHRISTEN: Come girls. Come. Boys, let's go.

GERLOCK: Kay Christen shakes a feed bucket, and soon we're surrounded by black cattle munching on corn and clover. Just across the fence is more grass, another one of their pastures, except that it almost wasn't. Rod Christen says for 15 years it was under a contract in a federal conservation program. Just a few years ago that contract expired.

CHRISTEN: Well, that's when crop prices were escalating. Big sways in the markets kind of make you think, you know?

GERLOCK: It was tempting, he says, to plant corn for a few years and make some extra money while prices were high. But in the end, the field stayed in pasture. For the way the Christens do things, taking out the grass didn't add up.

CHRISTEN: Once you kill the sod, you know, that's a whole ecosystem, you know, that will change. I feel it was a good decision. Did it pay as good? Probably not.

GERLOCK: Rod Christen says what worked for them wouldn't work for everyone. Each farmer has to do the math for themselves. Groups hoping to preserve prairie grasslands are hoping that changes in crop insurance are enough to ensure farmers are making a long-term calculation. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Grant Gerlock in Steinauer, Nebraska.

CHAKRABARTI: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on issues in agriculture and food production.

Still to come, Human Rights Watch says that opposition groups systematically killed at least 190 civilians, including women and children. We'll explore a new report. That's next. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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