By Ben Shouse
HIGHMORE, SD—Technology and government subsidies have spawned a new era of sodbusting in central South Dakota, pitting struggling farmers against the state’s signature ecosystem and the nation’s most productive duck habitat.
Crop breeding and better machinery have helped make plowing virgin prairie more feasible in a region known as the Missouri Coteau. South Dakota, at the coteau’s southern tip, is “ground zero for this grassland loss,” according to a researcher from Ducks Unlimited, a conservation and hunting group that fears the destruction could drain much of the life from this indispensible place.
Using satellite photographs of thousands of tracts blanketing the coteau, researcher Scott Stephens of Bismarck, ND, and others have documented the loss of 88 square miles of native grassland in central South Dakota since 1984–10 percent of the area’s remaining acreage. The trend appears to be accelerating, and farmers and officials say government subsidies and new technology are responsible.
Conservationists and local ranchers want to halt the loss, while some farmers argue their new methods are good for wildlife. In the end, though, neither side may have much control over the larger economic forces that are breaking up the prairie.
“Government programs promote sodbusting at this time,” says Jim Iverson, director of the Miller office of the Farm Service Agency, the federal agency responsible for most subsidy programs. “The incentive to break up sod is that there are some price protections on the crop that they raise. There is no price protection on grass.”
Striving To Survive
New machinery and crop varieties are also making farming possible in places that were once too rocky or too dry. Rising land prices are prompting some ranchers to sell and farmers to break more of it up for crops.
“It’s getting tough out here, and people are trying to do whatever they can to stay afloat,” said Kevin Baloun, who has broken several parcels of native grass around Highmore. He said land prices and rental rates mean farmers need to increase their acreage just to maintain their incomes.
That’s what worries Jim Faulstich, a rancher who lives northeast of Baloun. His cattle graze native grasses such as big blue stem, switchgrass and Indiangrass, and resurgent native flowers such as echinacea, lead plant and scurf pea.
“If there is any one thing that I see as a threat to the environment right now, it’s the conversion of grasslands,” he said. “Once an ecosystem is torn up from conversion to farm ground, it’s gone, it’s lost.”
Sudden Rise In Farmland
The losses are mounting, according to the Ducks Unlimited study. Using satellite images, the group documented the conversion of 88 square miles of grassland in the southern tip of the Missouri Coteau. From 1984 to 2000, the rate of conversion averaged between 3 to 4 square miles per year, except for 1990 and 1991, when the rate was between 8 and 9 square miles a year. Then, around 2000, sodbusting increased, reaching 7 square miles in 2002 and 2003.
“Something changed here,” Stephens said. He hopes further research will reveal what that is, but farmers and ranchers have plenty of possible explanations: Greater farm production is possible because of drought-tolerant crop varieties, machines that remove rocks more efficiently and farm programs that support prices. Out-of-town investors and pheasant hunters are buying land here, which can raise prices.In turn, many who buy at those high prices might have to convert to crops to get the maximum return from the land. Many area ranchers are nearing retirement and might sell the land to boost their savings.
Farm Harm Disputed
Brad Baloun said he is neutral on the issue but sees why easements bother some farmers.
“It’s not that they’re anti-duck, it’s not that they’re anti-grass, it’s just that there is no longer any local control of the land,” he said. He and others argue that farming can be better for wildlife than grass, especially no-till farming. He would like to see more research on the differences between prairie and farm.
“It’s possible that these people who are doing this with Ducks Unlimited are just throwing their money away,” he said. Stephens, the Bismarck researcher, disagrees.”For any grassland-dependent wildlife, if you’re converting the chunk to cropland, that’s a bad thing,” he said.Ducks do nest on farmland, but research shows they are more likely to nest successfully on native grassland.
Science may be settling on an answer, but in the more complex, contentious world of land-use politics, discord reigns.Scaling back commodity programs might not be politically feasible. Changing the rules for what land may receive subsidies could be difficult. But Stephens said there ought to be more serious enforcement of one such rule, known as Sodbuster.
“You can convert almost anything as long as you have a, quote, ‘conservation plan,’ and that’s pretty loosely defined,” he said. “People are signing off on whatever plans people are coming up with.” Easements and land purchases, though voluntary, are controversial.
There is some agreement on other possible solutions, most of which involve reworking the funding scheme for government conservation programs. Like other subsidies, payments for the Conservation Reserve Program and the like go directly to farmers, but they encourage taking land out of production.
”Too much of the focus of previous farm bills has been on increasing production as much as possible,” said Sen. John Thune. “We’ve got to shape farm policy that becomes an incentive for conservation.”
Family farms and ranches, as much as ducks, are caught in the middle. Sometimes it comes down to a stark choice between preserving native grass and preserving profits. More producers are deciding to stay on the land by plowing more of it. And those who want to save grass agonize about whether to impose their values on others.
”I hate to say it should be mandatory, but I just wish that people would look at what they’re doing and the ecosystem they’re doing it to,” said Faulstich, who has easements on about 1,600 acres of his ranch.
If they don’t come to the same conclusion Faulstich did, the only barrier to more sodbusting is the market. Cattle prices have risen recently, which could make it easier for ranchers to hold on to their places. But Dorn Barnes, who farms near Highmore, SD said the market will keep pushing in the other direction.”I think, in 20 years, everything that can be farmed in Hyde County is going to be farmed, and only the marginal ground is going to be left for pasture.”–Argus Leader