Monday, January 2, 2012

This is what they call a zero-sum game

What's good for one group is bad for another.  It's hardly mentioned in this Thursday article on the NY Times website, but the plain truth is that rising crop prices aren't generally a good things for birds or the hunters who chase them.

Higher prices for corn and other staple grains translate to fewer acres of native grasses and shrubs, prime habitat for many gamebirds. The economics work like this:  A farmer has 20 acres of what he considers 'marginal' land, dirt so full of rocks or so lacking in nutrients or so damp that he can only manage 15 bushels of crop per acre when it comes time to harvest.  With corn prices at $2.50/bushel this land generates $37.50 an acre under the plow.  Take out the $5 or so per acre it costs to actually grow the corn (seed, fertilizer, diesel fuel, etc) and he nets even less.  The Conservation Reserve Program offers the farmer $50 per acre to plant some native grasses and just leave the land alone for ten years.  Easy decision, right?

Easy until world populations grow and all those new bellies want food in them.  Demand increases, prices rise, and all of sudden the farmer looks up and corn is fetching $6/bushel. Now this formerly marginal land is worth $90 an acre if he farms it, substantially more than the $50 an acre it gets in CRP.  And farmers instantly start bailing out of the CRP.  

And it's not just CRP acreage that's being converted back to cropland.  The article talks about midwest golf courses, windbreaks, even old homes being torn down, cleared and plowed to make room for more rows of crop.  I don't have much of a problem with a golf course being returned to farmland.  America needs another golf course like it needs another lawyer.  And if you tear down an old house that was in terrible disrepair and hadn't been lived in since the '30s you haven't really lost anything of use.  The cropland these are replaced with does provide food for migrating birds, so it's not a complete loss.  I hunt dove over corn, wheat, soybeans and sunflowers, and ducks and geese feed in these fields on their way south every year.  Where it falls short, though, is providing the critically important cover that upland gamebirds use for breeding and shelter.  It's like having several thousand grocery stores in a town but no houses.

CRP isn't likely to disappear completely.  There will always be land so marginal that it makes economic sense to leave it in the program.  And there will always be responsible farmers who will leave field borders for wildlife. Keeping CRP acreage from plummeting, however, is ultimately about dollars.  Funding CRP at higher rates is a challenge in good times; in the current environment it's a practical impossibility.  That leaves private sector funding as the stopgap, and it's going to be tough for organizations like Pheasants Forever to raise the necessary comparable capital.  We're talking about billions, not millions.

What the conservation groups lack in finance they can make up for in marketing and public relations, raising awareness among farmers and landowners of the value in creating and preserving wildlife habitat.  One thing working in our favor now is a general national consciousness of doing things in an environmentally responsible manner.  Leveraging this holds the best hope in the fight against world economics. Zero-sum doesn't have to mean winner take all.

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