Economist sees conditions ripening for new ‘Dust Bowl'

By Jim Webster

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 16 - Political and market forces could combine to create a “perfect storm” of elements that contribute to a new dust bowl in parts of the Great Plains, in the view of former USDA Economic Research Service Administrator Katherine (Kitty) Smith.

 Three principal elements are an increase in tillage of cropland to combat herbicide-resistant weeds, the economic incentives of high market prices for major program crops and the likely cutback in USDA conservation program payments to farmers after budget cuts in the next farm bill, said Smith, now chief economist for American Farmland Trust.

Her assessment was broadly endorsed by three other conservation-oriented panelists at CropLife America's 2012 national policy conference Wednesday morning at the Newseum.

 Molly Jahn, former USDA under secretary for research and one-time Wisconsin agriculture dean, said that Smith's “perfect storm” could be hastened by the end of conservation cross-compliance - as a requirement for farm program benefits - as this year's farm bill shifts from direct payments to reliance on crop insurance for a farm “safety net.”

 Sarah Hopper, agricultural policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund, said that even under current policies there was research to conclude that some farmers in the semi-arid northern plains states were growing crops on marginal lands better suited for cow-calf operations.

 Panelists did not disagree with the assessment by Bruce Knight, the former under secretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment, that the farm bill likely would not require adherence to conservation practices to be eligible for subsidized crop insurance. “The farm organizations don't want it, the crop insurance companies don't want it, and frankly they have out-lobbied those” who advocate cross-compliance.

 Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, one of the best-known proponents of cross compliance, said it was not merely a question of what crop insurance companies and farm organizations proposed but “a lack of political courage to stand up to them and say that taxpayers want a quid pro quo - something in return for the $9 billion or so we're giving them.”

 He said that USDA during the Reagan Administration did stand up to opponents of cross-compliance. USDA could do so today, he said, “but President Obama has not done so.”

CropLife's conference kicked off by showing excerpts of a new public television documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” produced by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, to be broadcast in November. “We don't know, we can only assume, that wise conservation practices will continue,” Duncan said. “I hope that advice from the past will be something that will guide the right decisions.”

 

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