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Report: Farmers plowed up 1.8 million acres of grasslands in 2020

U.S. and Canadian farmers plowed up about 1.8 million acres of Great Plains grasslands to plant crops in 2020, according to a report released Tuesday by the World Wildlife Federation. The report also showed that, for the first time since 2016, wheat surpassed corn and soy as the leading crop driving annual grasslands loss across the entirety of the Great Plains, and not just within the northern Great Plains. 

What’s causing that shift in crops is not yet well understood, according to Patrick Lendrum, senior science specialist for WWF’s Northern Great Plains Program. He speculated the change in cropping patterns could have been due a range of factors: the 2018-2019 trade war with China over soybeans, farmers choosing a less labor-intensive crop during the pandemic because of a lack of farmhands, depressed demand for biofuels during the pandemic and spring 2020 weather events. 

“These are all speculations, unfortunately,” Lendrum said. “We’re trying to dig more into this, but we just don’t have the answers yet.”

The report, which uses data from the USDA’s annual Cropland Data Layer, noted some policy initiatives that could help slow the conversion of grasslands. One is the North American Grasslands Conservation Act, introduced in July 2022, which would provide new resources for voluntary, incentive-based conservation of grasslands and establish a strategy for the protection, restoration, and management of grassland ecosystems across North America.

Lendrum said the bill is modeled after the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which was passed in 1989 and provided incentives for farmers to voluntarily preserve wetlands or restore them. “You can really see an increase in the number of waterfowl and wetland conservation that occurred when that went into play,” he said. 

He and others at WWF would also like to see the 2023 Farm Bill strengthen and fund certain programs that help farmers and ranchers conserve grasslands such as the conservation technical assistance program, the conservation stewardship program and the conservation reserve program. Plus, he said, they are hoping for more funding for the “sod saver” program which helps disincentivize conversion of native sod by lowering crop insurance subsidies on cropland converted from native prairie. That program is only available in six states in the Upper Midwest. 

“It’s been around for a number of years,” Lendrum said. “But the uptake isn’t at the scale that’s needed. We’d love to see it expand to be a Great Plains or a U.S.-wide policy, instead of just being in those handful of states.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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