Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Return of the Plow

In 1837, John Deere invented the steel moldboard plow.  In the years that followed, Midwestern and Great Plains' farmers plowed under prairie sod to plant corn, wheat, and other grains for humans and livestock consumption.  Prairie busting continued for years, gradually putting more and more grassland into grain production.  Not until the Great Depression and the coinciding Dust Bowl did use of the plow begin to diminish.  Use of herbicides, no-till and minimum till have further diminished the traditional moldboard plow's role in north american farming practices.

But I've read that in the last couple years the moldboard plow has returned to the Midwest--if not literally, at least figuratively.
 Record high commodity prices in recent years have tempted a lot of farmers to convert parts of waterways, pastures, and prairies into more lucrative corn and soybean producing fields. In 2012, U.S. farmers planted more acres to corn than at any time since World War II.  The incentive to convert highly erodible land from prairie or pasture, once part of the  federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), is also present.

Congress may be setting the stage to accelerate the conversion of CRP land back to row crop production.  The Senate-passed version of the 2012 Farm Bill reduces funding for conservation programs by $6.4 billion. The House version could see more drastic cuts.  This would be a shame, since many farmers are concerned with maximizing yields for this year, and conservation practices take years to pay dividends.  With no financial incentive, many farmers will plant every available inch of land to corn, soybeans, and other crops.

My prior posts about gulf hypoxia and the EPA's efforts to establish numeric nutrient criteria in the Mississippi River Basin further illustrate the quandary here.  Conservation practices (putting highly erodable land into grass, planting waterways, increasing no-till acres) are activities that farmers can do now to reduce nutrient run-off.  How ironic that the federal government encourages these practices with one branch and reduces financial incentives to undertake such practices with the other.

Growing up in Kansas, I witnessed first hand how some row-crop land was successfully returned to prairie when put into the CRP program.  Some of this land should never have been turned by the plow in the first place, due to shallow top soils and steep terrain, but farmers in the 1800s and early 1900s did not understand erosion and nutrient run-off like we do now.  The perfect storm of increased commodity prices and decreased conservation funding may once again return more land to plow that is probably better suited to grass. In the long run, plowing and planting unsuitable farmland will only increase nutrient loading in the Mississippi River Basin and thus increase the pressure on the EPA to set numeric nutrient limits, something most farmers do not want (whether they know it or not).

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