WASHINGTON, April 8, 2015 – It’s no secret that a substantial amount of land was converted to crops starting in 2008 as prices for corn and other commodities were soaring. But a new study out of the University of Wisconsin claims to detail for the first time where that new cropland is located and what it was used for before being plowed up mostly for corn and soybeans.

According to the study, 77 percent of the 7.3 million acres of land converted to crops from 2008 through 2012 was in grassland prior to that. Another 16 percent was either shrub land or former cropland that had been idle for at least 10 years.

Nearly one-quarter of the converted land, about 1.6 million acres, had been in grass for at least 20 years prior to being converted to crops, according to the study. “The nationwide loss of grasslands found in our study confirms alarming trends previously reported at local and regional scales,” the study says.

At the same time farmers were breaking grasslands for crops, other growers were taking some cropland of production during the period – about 4.36 million acres in all, according to the study.  But those abandoned areas, most of which were enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, tend to be less concentrated and scattered across the country than the areas were grasslands were converted to crops, the researchers found. That acreage is concentrated in a number of “hot spots,” such as the Plains states, southern Iowa, northern Missouri and the perimeters of the Appalachians, Ozarks, and the Northwoods of Minnesota, the researchers found.

To some extent the study is already outdated. The amount of land in corn has declined in recent years, and total crop acreage nationwide is expected to decline to 246 million acres in 2017, down from an average of 257 million acres in 2012-2014, according to USDA’s long-term forecast. This year, farmers are expected to plant 89.2 million acres of corn, down from 95.4 million acres in 2012.

However, farmers will find it harder to put converted land back into the CRP because of a cap imposed by the 2014 farm bill, said Tyler Lark, the study’s lead author.

Plus, he said, “When previously uncultivated land gets converted to crop production, it undergoes some relatively permanent changes--in some cases, the lost carbon and biodiversity can be nearly impossible to recover in our lifetime. So in that sense, returning recently cultivated land back to grass typically cannot fully offset the impacts compared to if the land was never cultivated in the first place.”

The farm bill will cut the acreage limit on CRP to 24 million by fiscal 2015, down from the 32 million-acre cap set in 2008. The lower CRP limit had strong support from the feed industry and others who had been hit hard by the sharp rise in the prices of corn, soybeans and other crops. The Agriculture Department isn’t conducting a general sign up for CRP this year.

Julie Sibbing, senior director of agriculture and forestry programs for the National Wildlife Federation, worries that valuable wildlife habitat won’t be restored even though farmers are planting less land to corn and other crops.  “Once plowed, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to fully restore prairie. And after the ramp-down of CRP (the Conservation Reserve Program), there isn’t much room in there to enroll abandoned acres, so less of the abandoned acres will actually be restored to habitat,” Sibbing said.

To discourage additional conversion to cropland, the 2014 farm bill includes a Sodsaver provision pushed by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that reduces crop insurance subsidies on such acreage. The provision, however, is limited to six states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.

[This article first appeared in our April 8, 2015 Agri-Pulse newsletter. If you aren’t a subscriber or don’t download our Wednesday newsletters, you’re missing out on stories such as this one.]


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