March 27, 2015

What will ag land value correction mean for conservation

Anyone who has been watching the paper for the past 3-4 years knows that farm land in the Midwest and Great Plains regions had reached record levels.  The psychological push to invest in ag lands when times are good (corn prices were high) is intriguing--as we normally think of trying to do the opposite for long-term investment (buy low/sell high).

Of course, our landscapes are affected by the economics of land sales and land use.  In recent years, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in the central US fell by over 20% in many states--because it made more sense ($$$) to plant corn than to take the lower lease price offered by USDA for CRP land.

I've just published an article in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation that details the history of land values and conservation efforts in the US.  You can click here to read the entire article--which has a fun cartoon if that makes you want to click!

The bottom line is that we are poised near the top of a peak in land values and history suggests a correction is coming.  Previous corrections, as you can see from the figure above, include the Great Depression, the Recession of the 1950s, and the Farm Crisis of the 1980's.  Although this correction may not be of the scale of those previous corrections, we are not in good company folks!  There are signs that ag loan repayments are declining and extension requests are up.  The Wall Street Journal reported recently (as my manuscript was in press) that ag land values dropped by 3% this year--the first decline in decades.

My colleagues who work in the field of conservation on private lands--essentially people who help farmers and ranchers develop programs to fund conservation on their land--have had a rough go of it in the past 10 years.  The high commodity prices made it tough to convince folks to "leave some for the wildlife."

Now, that dynamic has changed.  I make some suggestions in the article about the innovative new tools that might appear in the next Farm Bill, because political will (to help farmers in a poor economy) and the economic payoff (CRP lease prices are now looking pretty good, with corn down to $2.50 a bushel instead of over $6/bushel) will collide.

What will we see in the next Farm Bill?  It will be fun to watch, and I encourage my colleagues in wildlife and conservation to participate in the discussion.  This opportunity seems to only happen every 30 years, so it won't happen again during our careers!

February 24, 2015

Dave Domina talks about future of farming

The School of Natural Resources at University of Nebraska-Lincoln was fortunate to host Mr. David Domina, a trial lawyer with Domina and Associates, as our seminar speaker on Friday, February, 20, 2015.  He gave a powerful presentation about forces that he sees on our farm landscapes.

In particular, he addresses the divide that I've mentioned between the goals of growth and production, which tend to make farms bigger and rural towns smaller, and the goals of sustaining rural communities.  This seems to be the question of the era--can we ensure prosperity for farmers without killing the rural economy that surrounds them?

Take a listen.  There are several challenges to think about.

February 21, 2015

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse


An illustration from Aunt Louisa's Oft Told Tales,
New York c.1870
The contrast between life in the city and life in the countryside is older than the history of Nebraska.  Indeed, a story that may have been one of your favorites as a child, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, is included in the collection of Aesop’s Fables.  Aesop, a slave who told stories, is believed to have lived in Greece almost 2600 years ago. 

You may remember the story: a mouse from the city goes to visit his cousin on the farm, who offers him a meager, yet hearty, dinner of beans, bacon, cheese, and bread.  The town mouse turns up his nose at the meal, and asks his cousin to visit him in the city.  When the mice arrived in the city, they find the remains of a magnificent feast and are half-way through their meal when two large dogs interrupt them.  As the mice scurry for cover, the country mouse decides that he has had enough.  He declares to his city cousin that he will be leaving, for he would prefer “beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear."

In modern days, the story of the country mouse and his cousin has become an idiom that describes a perceived, stark contrast between life in urban areas and life in rural areas.  As it turns out, this simple dichotomy has deep and far-reaching impacts on the politics of a state like Nebraska and the manner in which our landscapes are viewed and managed.

1920 was a unique year for demographics in the United States.  Nebraska served as a mirror for the rest of the US when the population of Nebraska, for the first time, was equal in urban and rural areas.  After 1920, the domination of the ‘farm vote’ and the ‘rural voice’ would never be the same.  It might be easy for us to view the demographic shift from rural to urban as an image of rural people running to the city.  But, in fact, the census figures show us that the rural Nebraska population stopped growing in 1920 while the urban population continued to grow and grow and grow—thus tipping the balance in the favor of city folk.

Intriguing political contests show an insight into the friction between rural and urban views.  The fight to prohibit alcohol after the turn of the century in the US, as an example, can be viewed as an urban/rural battle.  Some historians view prohibition as a reaction by rural people against the cities that were developing and growing in the US.  More and more immigrants were settling in cities, and these people had different cultures and different drinking customs.  The century-old march towards Prohibition reached a fever pitch after 1910, as the hand-writing was on the wall—the 1920 census would show that urban populations had outpaced rural populations for the first time, and legislative boundaries would be redrawn. The end of the political clout of the farm and ranch could be seen on the horizon.  And, in 1919, Prohibition was signed into law as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  Nebraska served the vital role as the 36th state legislature to ratify the amendment; 36 of 48 states were required.

Prohibition, as we know now, was a temporary victory for rural America.  As cities disintegrated under the thumb of crime syndicates that were unforeseen byproducts of Prohibition, urban American grew in population size and the economy started to flounder.  The Depression was upon the United States.  In 1933, Prohibition was repealed.

Modern political scientists who look for trends in ‘blue’ and ‘red’ states tell us that the divide between states has vanished—the story is focused on cities.  For example, in the 2012 presidential election, the only major cities that voted Republican were Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, and Salt Lake City. After these major cities, the largest urban centers to lean Republican were Wichita, Nebraska’s Lincoln, and Boise.  To point, some of the bluest cities in America are located in the reddest states.  For example, Texas is a red state, but all of its major cities (Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio) voted Democratic in 2012.  Since 1984, the trend for cities to vote ‘blue’ has deepened. 


Taken from The Atlantic (reference below).
As urban centers continue to grow, some demographers predict that the US will become a dichotomy of rural areas scattered between megaregions of urban concentration by 2050.  These megaregions are produced as cities within certain regions grow towards each other and merge: the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, Florida, the Piedmont Atlantic across the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee, the Gulf Coast, the Texas Triangle, the Front Range of the Rockies, the Arizona Sun Corridor, Southern California, Northern California, and Cascadia along the Oregon/Washington coast.
The resulting landscape and potential dynamics make us pause.  Most people in the US will be living in urban megaregions, depending on food, energy, and water resources gotten from rural areas.  As urbanites are further and further removed from rural areas, there may be deeper misunderstandings about how food, energy, and water arrive in the city.  The country mouse will be providing for its city cousin, who will have little comprehension of rural life.

Although prediction of the future is difficult and potentially foolhardy, we can make some statements with certainty.   Even though megaregions may develop, rural areas will see the influx of people who will continue to take up residence on acreages scattered throughout the ag landscape, and this will have interesting impacts on local elections.  To facilitate the ‘urban seep’ into rural areas, we can also predict with certainty that efficiency in agriculture will continue to increase.  So, even fewer people will be needed to live in rural areas.  If we picture the landscape as the factory that it is, fewer people will be needed to run the factory.  The problem with this scenario is that the factory—the rural landscape—is also seen as a way of life, which is different than any other factory in an urban area.  The loss of sheer numbers of ‘real rural people’ in rural areas seems certain to bring continued conflicts surrounding political representation of rural interests. 

Simultaneously, political representation of urban areas should continue to grow.  And, the resource needs of cities will continue to grow, which will bring pressure to extract more energy and food and water from rural areas.  If much of the population will exist in megaregions, we can predict an increase in controversy over transportation of goods: pipelines, transmission lines, highways, and the like will have to cross rural areas.  Current controversies over the Keystone XL Pipeline and electrical transmission lines through the Nebraska Sandhills are likely a small foreshadowing of controversies to come.  Ironically, rural people don’t seem to like to see infrastructure built on their property to transport the byproducts of their livelihoods.  And, that seems reasonable, really.  Not in my backyard, as they say.    

Legislation, in the future, will continue to favor urban values.  If people in cities want their food to be produced without the use of growth hormones and genetically engineered organisms, rural producers of food—who may very well understand how to safely produce food with such tools—may be forced to capitulate to market demands or legislation related to food production.  It is interesting to reflect on Europe and Japan’s current opinions and regulations on genetically engineered foods.  The regulations that are more restrictive in those regions may have arisen because Europe and Japan are much more densely packed into urban areas than is the US.  Current ‘educational’ efforts in the area of agricultural literacy are amusing to view in this light—are these efforts the last gasps of an industry trying to argue with the ideology of an urban demographic that is quickly dwarfing the rural producers?

In truth, the demands on the rural population will not be fair.  On one hand, the rural landscape will be asked to respond to produce food and energy for the cities.  On the other hand, the cities will look across the plains and complain when wildlife disappears from the landscape that is producing their bread or steak.  Or, the populations of cities—undergoing mushrooming growth that is supported by chemical technology on the farm—will complain about the quality of the water that arrives via rivers or canals.  That doesn’t seem fair, and it is a dynamic that must be remedied as we move to the future.

At the same time, the liberal, environmental ideology of the city may be needed to make political decisions to save our landscapes.  Are cities useful?  We can look at the case of hypoxia (loss of oxygen) in the Gulf of Mexico to gain some clues about public opinion and politics.  Currently, the agriculture industry in the Midwest enjoys a relative lack of regulations for nonpoint source pollution of nitrates that rush from farm fields after heavy rains.  One reason for the lack of regulation is that the Midwest—the region drained by Mississippi and Missouri rivers—is essentially city-less, in a relative sense.  There is no emerging megaregion in the Midwest.  So, rural politics still dominate.  Certainly, we can find urban centers along the Gulf Coast, but they cannot enact legislation to regulate farmers in Iowa or Nebraska.  Shrimp fisherfolks in New Orleans feel the impact of hypoxia when the ‘dead zone’ widens and they must fish farther from shore.  But, the shrimpers are in the wrong state to make legislative demands on corn farmers.  In fact, it will probably take Federal legislation to regulate nitrogen usage, but that is currently viewed as counter to the demands for food production.  Nebraskans may rise to challenge pollution of our rivers, but only if urban centers begin to see financial impacts of water treatment to protect their citizens.  Therefore, we would predict that if regulations come, the culprit will be in-state, urban pressures.

As we look back at Aesop’s fable of the country mouse and the town mouse, it is ironic that we see the mice arguing over food.  Perhaps Aesop was just a very insightful person.  Perhaps food has always been at the center of resource allocation arguments through history.  Whatever the reason, we can predict that the rural and urban divide will continue to be a critical factor in our political debates.  Today, there are more town mice than country mice.  And, just as we see with the failure of Prohibition, we can predict that the town mice are going to have an important role to play in the future of our rural landscapes.  Beans and bacon, indeed.  Let’s eat cake.

 
References used in this piece:

Jacobs, J.  1894.  The Fables of Aesop.  Macmillan and Company: London and New York.  7:15-17.

Kirkpatrick, E. L., and E. G. Tough.  1932.  Prohibition and Agriculture.  Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 163 (Prohibition: A National Experiment): 113-119. 

Kron, J.  2012.  Red State, Blue City: How the Urban-Rural Divide Is Splitting America.  The Atlantic (November 30, 2012).  On-line: < http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/11/red-state-blue-city-how-the-urban-rural-divide-is-splitting-america/265686/>  Accessed 14 January 2015. 

Scott, A., A. Gilbert, and A. Gelan.  2007.  The Urban-Rural Divide: Myth or Reality?  SERG Policy Brief Series, Claudia Carter (Ed.).  Macaulay Institute: Craigiebuckler, Aberdeen, UK. 

 

January 22, 2015

Yuccas will bounce back

In a recent post, I mentioned a wide-spread illness of yucca (Yucca glauca) in the Nebraska Sandhills.  The illness appeared as a yellowed leaf condition, and most individuals halted flowering at many sites that I observed, although pockets of 'normal' yuccas could be found.  The impact was felt by some UNL scientists who were trying to study yucca and pollinator interactions--it was hard to find flowering plants for their study.  That was odd and an unexpected problem.
Yucca in the north-central region of the Nebraska Sandhills
during the summer of 2014.  A yellow condition of the leaves
can be seen (photo by Larkin Powell).
Many people wondered--are we going to lose our yucca?

It appears the answer is no...they were just sick.  It has taken some time, but in December, a University plant pathologist has released a report on samples brought to the UNL West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, NE.

The report concluded that the plants from the sample provided were affected by a fungal disease called "Coniothyrium" or brown leaf spot.  A further explanation of the disease can be found, from a horticulture perspective, here.

Scientists from the UNL Center reflected that the spread of this disease was unusually widespread and severe.  As suggested previously, weather conditions and plant stress from the 2012 drought could be to blame. 

Although some plants did die, many yucca have already recovered.  Stop on the prairie next summer and take a look at the yucca you find.  Can you find new shoots or dead plants?  I'll bet if you look closely, you can find evidence of this disease.  But, it looks like yucca will be back to full strength in the Sandhills, and we can continue to appreciate them as a perching spot for grassland birds.  And, we can curse at them when we are stabbed by their leaves.

January 13, 2015

Prairie chickens in the Sandhills: information for ranchers

A chick rests in the hand of a UNL research scientist during habitat
studies in the Nebraska Sandhills.  (photo by Jess Milby)
My colleagues and I started thinking in 2008 about the need to provide ranchers in Nebraska's Sandhills with information to help them manage their pastures for prairie chickens. 

The problem is that most information that was available at that time was based on research in tall grass prairies.  Tall grass prairies receive more rain and have more grass and the vegetation is more dense.

The previous management guidelines routinely called for more grass to be left in the field than is typically found in a Sandhills pasture--so, Sandhills ranchers were faced with a dilemma: "Do I really have to abstain from grazing to provide for prairie chickens?"

The answer is no, and if you follow this link, you'll find a nice, glossy 20-page document that describes prairie chickens, their life history, their habitat needs, and how to provide for them on ranches in the Sandhills!

The Extension Circular is based on 5 years of research in the Sandhills, and the research was funded through Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.  It was a huge collaborative effort, with multiple graduate students and summer technicians collecting a lot of data.  There was sweat involved.  And, a lot of love for the critter of interest.

Here's hoping that this is useful to someone.