Subsidies Spur Crops on Fragile Habitat

By Dan Morgan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 7, 2008

HIGHMORE, S.D. -- The ducks arrive in early April, zeroing in on thousands of shallow ponds fed by melting snow amid a vast prairie. As the pintails, mallards and blue-winged teal make nests in the grass and feed their young on abundant aquatic insects and freshwater shrimp, a 276,000-square-mile area reaching across five states and into Canada is transformed into one of the world's greatest habitats for migrating birds.

Now this swath, known as the Prairie Pothole Region because of the depressions formed long ago by retreating glaciers, is threatened by the steady advance of farming. Spurred by federal subsidies and two years of surging commodity prices, farmers increasingly are digging up the grass to plant crops, raising concerns among cattle ranchers, hunters and environmental groups about the future of land where Sioux hunters chased grazing buffalo a mere century and a half ago.

Today, signs of change are clearly visible. Emerald fields of ripening crops stand out against a sea of tawny grass in which a single square yard can hold 100 plant species. Rock piles tell the tale of fields cleared to make way for corn, soybeans, sunflowers or wheat.

Whether U.S. taxpayers should be underwriting these changes has emerged as a controversial issue in farm country and in Washington.

With rainfall in this part of South Dakota averaging only 17 inches a year, conservation groups say most farmers would not risk the start-up costs of plowing and preparing the ground without crop insurance, on which the federal government pays close to 60 percent of the premium.

"If there was no insurance, you'd have to sit down and study it," acknowledged Kevin Baloun, who operates a large farm in Hyde County. "You might think twice about it."

Efforts to curtail this subsidy ran into stiff opposition during deliberations on the recently enacted farm bill.

The House and Senate both voted to deny or delay crop insurance on fragile land that had never been farmed. But last-minute lobbying by some farm organizations and crop-growing interests limited the restriction to five Great Plains states -- North and South Dakota, Montana, Iowa, and Minnesota.

And the restriction will apply in a state only if the governor opts for it. So far, none has.

"Basically, the provision was gutted," said Lynn Tjeerdsma, a former aide to Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).

Grass once covered the prairies from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains, but tens of millions of acres were lost as farming moved west. While a recent drop in record crop prices may slow the process for a few months or years, cattle ranchers, hunters and environmentalists fear they are fighting the tide of history.

The environmental pressures have only grown with unprecedented changes in American agriculture brought on by increasing demand from foreign countries and the biofuels industry. In South Dakota alone, about 425 square miles of grassland were turned into farmland between 2002 and 2007, according to state and federal data.

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