Conservation Reserve Program Losses
It’s been 15 months, now, since I wrote “Is Anyone Paying Attention? We’ve Lost 9.7 Million Acres of CRP Land in Five Years.” About eight months after I wrote that, the Associated Press did an in-depth story on the same subject in November 2013, concluding the same as I did, that the mandated use of corn ethanol was causing massive abandonment of conservation practices throughout the Midwest, especially in the Dakotas. The AP’s long feature article was splashed across front pages of newspapers across America and its journalist was interviewed on PBS Newshour. Also, two months ago, the Food and Environment Reporting Network covered the story in a piece titled “Plowed Under”.
So the story of the recent unprecedented movement to plow up land and convert it to growing corn and soybeans is finally out there, yet if Gallop did a poll on the subject I shudder to guess how few Americans would actually be aware of what is going on in America’s Heartland. A new farm bill has become law since I wrote my piece and there are glimmers of hope in it, but it is disastrous policy for the soil and biodiversity, to pay out crop insurance which reimburses landowners for failed crops on land which should never have been plowed and planted with row crops in the first place.
Other stories go with this one, including the loss of Monarch butterflies, the loss of bee populations, the loss of pheasants, waterfowl and songbirds, and the loss of rural human populations, too, as the farms become larger and larger in the Midwest.
Today, I have some photos to share with you and at the end of this post I will call your attention to two important new developments which are very negative for the ethanol industry. Both knock down the industry’s repeated claim that it is a green fuel.
First, let’s look at three photos that I took on a recent trip back to Eastern Nebraska.
This first photo shows a farm place which is about to become history. The house and trees around the place have all been bull dozed. Already, the farmer is growing corn right up to the piles of trees and lumber as close as he can get. I expect that next time I see this spot which is very near to the farm that I grew up on, all of the buildings will be gone. This type of sight is not unusual.
This, also close to my childhood farm, is a good example of farming right up to a waterway instead of leaving a strip of grass or treed area. There is nothing to capture the soil, fertilizer, and pesticide runoff during rains, when a farmer decides to farm every square inch of land in ways such as this. Also note the pivot irrigation system setting nearby. This is not over the Ogallala aquifer area, but rather has limited groundwater from which to pump. In the large majority of years, this region experiences adequate moisture to produce good crop yields, but the drought of 2012, along with high corn prices that year, prompted quite a few farmers to add pivot systems to their operations.
This is a photo overlooking a Cargillopoly located near Blair, Nebraska, not far from the Missouri River. This is all about converting corn to ethanol and making other bio-products such as bioplastics. The two-hundred million dollar Denmark Novazymes plant is also located here, as are German and other corn product manufacturing operations. Novazymes manufactures enzymes that are used by ethanol plants throughout the country.
It should be noted that bioplastics, because they decompose, release more greenhouse gases than petroleum plastics, which do not decompose.
That ends my photos from Nebraska.
North Dakota Photos
Next, are some photos taken by my North Dakota photographer friend, Rick, who is documenting the conversion of CRP land, wetlands, and prairie to plowed fields for corn and soybean row crops. They show the sad story of what has happened to highly erodible land in North Dakota. Current farm policy provides profit opportunities from plowing up our nation’s unique waterfowl habitat ecosystem found in this Prairie Pot Hole Region, otherwise it wouldn’t be happening.
In the new farm bill passed this year, you will recall that direct payments to farmers were dropped, while the crop insurance program was expanded, with a new higher bottom floor on prices. Many of Rick’s observations conclude that crop insurance is what makes it profitable for the farmer to plow these highly erodible lands in North Dakota.
Take a look at this “before” shot of a very rocky field left as grassland.
This photo shows us the “after” it’s been plowed version. Can you imagine?
This North Dakota photo pretty much speaks for itself. I asked Rick to send me a photo of a hill being farmed and this bean field is what he sent.
Here is another bean field after the crop and soil have been washed away. Crop insurance should cover it, not to worry.
These next three from Rick show a map marking three CRP fields in 2012 which were plowed in 2013. The top photo is a panoramic showing the fields after they were plowed. He notes that the white areas which show on the map are bare, soil-less hilltops.
Above is another North Dakota field showing severe erosion.
And another. The two photos above are both recently converted CRP (Conservation Reserve Program land) to cropland.
In the top photo taken in the fall of 2013, we see a hayfield/CRP with bales around a prairie pothole, and in the bottom spring 2014 photo we see that it has been plowed. This was taken in Stutsman County, North Dakota. Rick tells me that this county lost 36,000 acres of CRP in 2013. In 2000 it had 180,000 acres of CRP; in 2012 it had 106,000 acres of CRP; and, in 2013 the CRP acres in Stutsman County were down to 70,000 acres.
In a similar comparison, the top photo taken last fall shows a hayfield and bales, and the bottom photo taken this spring shows a plowed field with industrial equipment near a pothole lake. Rick said that this section of land had been in CRP for as long as he could remember.
Rick took this photo and commented that the corn field was still unharvested at the end of November 2013. If the land only produced a few bushels of corn per acre, it was not worth harvesting, yet, it was probably a profitable venture for the farmer because of crop insurance.
This is the final shot from Rick showing us the conversion of a grassland and hay field to plowed land which is badly eroded, in the Prairie Pothole region of North Dakota.
Corn Ethanol Greenhouse Emissions
In the introduction, I said I’d be pointing your attention towards some new studies that knock down the idea that the ethanol industry promotes – that ethanol is a green fuel. Because of the magnitude of environmental problems that it is causing, and its low or negative energy return, I’ve never considered it to be green, but some official reports have come out recently which should really get the attention of our top policy makers.
Just last week, the Environmental Working Group came out with a report telling us that corn ethanol raises greenhouse emissions, which is contrary to what the industry likes to tell us.
Although the RFS explicitly prohibits using converted land to produce ethanol, there is no regulatory framework to enforce this and the USDA has no way of knowing whether corn is being grown on converted land….
In 2012, an Environmental Working Group study found that from 2008 to 2011, more than 8 million acres of grassland and wetlands were converted for corn alone.
In 2013, EWG documented that 23 million acres of grassland, shrub land and wetland had been plowed under for crop production between 2008 and 2011. Eight million acres were converted to grow corn and another 5.6 million to plant soybeans, because the ethanol mandate pushed up soybean prices as well…
EWG’s research shows that roughly 306,000 acres of wetlands were converted to produce corn between 2008 and 2012. The emissions released by this conversion totaled 25-to-74 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year for each of those five years. The additional 8 million acres of grasslands and shrub lands converted to corn from 2008 to 2011 added another 60-to-162 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions per year over the period, for a total of between 85 million and 236 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases.
CONCLUSION: The intent of the Renewable Fuel Standard was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, diminish America’s dependence on foreign oil and promote development of advanced biofuels. Instead it has resulted in rapid expansion of corn ethanol production, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, worsening air and water pollution and driving up the price of food and feed.
Ethanol Causes Increased Ozone in Brazil
A study done in Sao Paulo, Brazil, revealed that ozone air pollution increased when drivers were using ethanol. Again, we’ve been told the opposite, that by using ethanol in our vehicles, ozone pollution would be decreased. This is a huge deal, because for places like the front range of Colorado, which struggles with air pollution and also has mandated use of ethanol, we need to know whether it is worsening air quality, or not.
I wish that the Front Range Air Pollution and Photochemistry Experiment known as FRAPPÉ, funded by the National Science Foundation and carried out here in Boulder at the National Center for Atmospheric Research would study this. I contacted two people here at NCAR on the FRAPPÉ team and hope that they can figure out a way to do the study or set up the models. This region is growing very rapidly and because of its geography, air pollution is already increasing and struggling to meet goals, with added emissions from fracking, and more and more cars on the roads.
It is time for our highest level policy makers to reconsider biofuels mandates.
Now that the expensive infrastructure has been paid for and policy has set the mandated high levels of biofuel use here in the U.S., the industry has taken on a life of its own. As agricultural input costs keep rising, the cost of planting either corn or soybeans has gone up markedly. Taxpayers are helping to fund the profitability of these two crops, in spite of current high input costs, wherever they are grown. Automobile owners are also helping to fund them every time they fill their gas tank with fuel containing ethanol. Consumers are paying a price for this policy, too, every time they pay higher prices for meat, dairy, and eggs at their local grocery store.
All of the related industry beneficiaries of this policy maintain strong lobbying efforts in our nation’s Capital. It is very difficult to turn back the clock at this point, but that’s no excuse for lax environmental protection policies for our land and water natural resources.