As the dog days of summer wear on, the northern plains are really feeling the heat. Hot, dry weather has quickly turned into the nation’s worst current drought in Montana and the Dakotas, and drought conditions are slowly creeping south and east into the heart of the Corn Belt. Another year and another drought presents yet another opportunity to consider how smart public policies could make farmers and rural communities more resilient to these recurring events.
Let’s start with what’s happening on the ground: Throughout the spring and early summer, much of the western United States has been dry, receiving less than half of normal rainfall levels. And the hardest hit is North Dakota. As of last week, 94 percent of the state was experiencing some level of abnormally dry conditions or drought, with over a quarter of the state in severe or extreme drought (a situation that only occurs 3 to 5 percent of the time, or once every 20 to 30 years).
But this drought is not just about a dry spring. Experts believe the problem started last fall when first freeze dates were several weeks later than usual, creating a “bonus” growing period for crops like winter wheat and pasture grasses, which drew more water from the soil. This is an important pattern for agriculture to stay tuned into, as recent temperature trends point to greater warming conditions in the winter.
Bad news for wheat farmers (and bread eaters)
The timing of the drought is particularly damaging to this region’s farm landscape, which centers around grasslands for grazing livestock, along with a mix of crops including wheat, corn, soy, and alfalfa.
Spring wheat has been especially hard hit—experts believe this is the worst crop in several decades in a region that produces more than 80 percent of the country’s spring wheat. (Here’s a great map of the wheat varieties grown across the country, which makes it easy to see that the bread and pasta products we count on come from Montana and the Dakotas).
As grasses wither, cattle ranchers have only bad options
More than 60 percent of the region’s pasture grasses are also in poor or very poor condition, leaving cattle without enough to eat. Given the forecast of high temperatures upcoming, and the creeping dry conditions into parts of the Corn Belt (at a time of year when corn is particularly sensitive to hot and dry conditions), it is shaping up to be a difficult situation for farmers and ranchers all around the region.
So it’s appropriate that the Secretary of Agriculture released a disaster proclamation in late June, allowing affected regions to apply for emergency loans. But another of the Secretary’s solutions for ranchers with hungry livestock—authorizing “emergency grazing” (and just this week) “emergency haying” on grasslands and wetlands designated off-limits to agriculture—could exacerbate another problem.
Short-term emergencies can hurt our ability to plan for the long-term
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), created by the 1985 Farm Bill, pays landowners a rental fee to keep environmentally sensitive lands out of agricultural production, generally for 10-15 years. It also serves to protect well-managed grazing lands as well as to provide additional acres for grazing during emergencies such as drought.
Instead of planting crops on these acres, farmers plant a variety of native grasses and tree species well suited to provide flood protection, wildlife and pollinator habitat, and erosion prevention. In 2016, almost 24 million acres across the United States (an area roughly the size of Indiana) were enrolled in CRP. This included 1.5 million acres in North Dakota, which represents approximately 4 percent of the state’s agricultural land.
While this might sound like a lot, CRP numbers across the country are down, and in fact North Dakota has lost half of its CRP acreage since 2007. This is due in part to Congress imposing caps on the overall acreage allowed in the program, but in large part due to the historically high commodity prices over the same time period, as well as increased demand for corn-based ethanol.
Research on crop trends tells a complicated story about how effective this program is at protecting these sensitive lands in the long-term. The data demonstrate how grasslands, notably CRP acreage, are being lost rapidly across the United States. CRP acreage often comes back into crop production when leases expire (see examples of this excellent research here, here and finally here, which notes that often CRP lands turn into corn or soy fields). This may potentially erase the environmental benefits from these lands that were set aside.
At the same time, with negotiations toward a new Farm Bill underway, some ranchers and lawmakers are looking for even more “flexibility” in the CRP program. Some have expressed concerns about the amount of land capped for CRP. Some feel that CRP rental rates are too high, tying up the limited suitable land that young farmers need to get started, while others believe there are not enough new contracts accepted (for things like wildlife habitat) because of caps.
The bottom line is that it is critical to have emergency plans in place to protect producers in cases of drought. Emergency livestock grazing on CRP acreage is one solution to help prevent ranchers from selling off their herds (such sell-offs are already being reported). But, if CRP acreage continues to decline, what will happen when the next drought occurs, or if this drought turns into a multi-year disaster? And what will happen if floods hit the region next year, and the grasslands that could help protect against that emergency aren’t there?
Unfortunately, short-term emergencies can hurt our ability to plan for long term, and the trend toward losing CRP and grasslands is one example of this. It is no simple balance for policy to find solutions that simultaneously support short-term needs while encouraging risk reduction in the long term.
Agroecology helps farmers protect land while still farming it
But there’s another way to achieve conservation goals that doesn’t depend upon setting land aside. A number of existing farm bill programs encourage farmers to use practices on working lands that build healthier soils to retain more water, buffering fields from both drought and flood events. Increasing investment and strengthening elements of these programs is an effective way to help farmers and ranchers build long-term resilience.
Recent research from USDA scientists in the Northern Plains highlights climate change impacts and adaptation options for the region, and their proposed solution sound much like the agroecological practices UCS advocates for: increased cropping intensity and cover crops to protect the soil, more perennial forages, integrated crop and livestock systems, as well as economic approaches that support such diversification and the extension and education services needed to bring research to farmers.
As I wrote last year, drought experts recognize that proactive planning is critical, thinking ahead about how disasters can be best managed through activities such as rainfall monitoring, grazing plans, and water management is critical. Here we are again with another drought, and climate projections tell us that things are likely to get worse. In this year as a new Farm Bill is being negotiated, we have an opportunity to think long-term and make investments for the future to better manage future drought.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.