February 26, 2012

Double whammy

I really enjoy reading syndicated columns written by Alan Guebert.  You can check him out at the Farm and Food File.  Alan looks at the big picture and calls it like he sees it, and that often means talking about things that make folks uncomfortable.  That must be why I like him!

In today's Farm and Food column, Guebert, points out the double-knock that current corn, wheat and soybean prices are providing to conservation efforts based on the Farm Bill.  Two problems exist:  (1) high prices encourage farmers to remove land from CRP (and other Farm Bill programs) contracts because they can make more money by planting crops (and who can blame them...it is their land, after all), and (2) high crop prices create a need for more money to cover federal crop insurance programs, which are also housed in the Farm Bill and directly compete for funds designated for the conservation portion of the Farm Bill.

The latter point is one that I think is lost to many wildlife and conservation biologists.

USDA-reported (NASS) annual market prices (per bu) for Nebraska corn
(Powell in review: Animal Biodiversity and Conservation).
Wildlife policy folks have always wrung their hands when discussing incentives for conservation on private lands--and we worry about issue #1 above: the relative rental costs paid for conservation (CRP) or crops.  For the last few years, CRP has not been able to keep up, and the reason is found in the corn price figure shown here.  I recently made this figure from USDA statistics for annual Nebraska market prices.

Wildlife policy folks need to worry more about #2 above, because the budgets for CRP dictate the total pot available for conservation programs.  If you want to turn this into a triple whammy, the end-result is that you have less money in the pot, and the per-acre rent costs are higher: meaning you end up with fewer acres you can support for conservation.

Guebert provides some statistics: the net farm income from crop and livestock sales was $99.1 billion in 2011: a record.  But, another record also occured: crop insurers paid at least $9.1 billion.  Variability in climate paired with high crop prices is only going to make this trend continue. 

Guebert also points out that the Congressional Budget Office forecasts that federal crop insurance will cost $89 billion over the next 10 years.  This is one-third more than the $65 billion that the CBO predicts the USDA conservation portion of the Farm Bill will cost. 

Where does that leave folks interested in wildlife policy.  Well, I will end with a portion of the abstract to a paper I just submitted to a journal, where I call for more innovation in this area--away from reliance on the Farm Bill:
Private lands are critical to conservation planning for wildlife, worldwide. Agriculture subsidies, tax incentives, and conservation easements have been successfully used as tools to convert cropland to native vegetation. But, uncertain economies threaten the sustainability of these incentives. The wildlife management profession is in need of innovative models that support effective management of populations. I argue that biologists should consider the option of facilitating the development of private reserves to reduce the dependence of conservation on public investment.

We need much more discussion in this area, for sure. You can ask questions about HOW my proposal would work, but Guebert's column supports my assertion that there are no questions to be asked about WHETHER a proposal is needed!

February 11, 2012

Back up the train on ag literacy

The 2012 Nebraska Legislature is considering a bill, LB884, that would create an Agriculture Literacy Task Force. The senators supporting this bill need to re-think their arguments.

Certainly, agriculture is the backbone of Nebraska's economy.  Ag drives decisions made everywhere in the state.  Nebraska agriculture provides food, fiber, fuel, and jobs.  LB884 states:

 "Despite the state's connection with and reliance on agriculture for betterment of the state and its people, a minority of its citizens [my emphasis] are directly involved in production agriculture and other industries upon which agriculture relies; and there is an inherent need to incorporate agriculture literacy into the curriculum of Nebraska's schools."

In fact, LB884 goes as far to state that the situation is so dire that "since an emergency exists, this act takes effect when passed and approved according to law."

I cannot decide what metaphor makes more sense, to describe the bill.  Is it like a small child who steals the toys from all of his friends, and then cries because no one will play with him?  Or, is it like an old man sitting on the porch, looking back at the way things used to be and nostalgically wishing for the past? 

Maybe it is both.

The bill's supporters have been quoted in various media sources as nostalgically pining for the days when everyone knew where their food came from.  "Kids think all eggs are white," they stated.  "They think all farmers wear overalls."

So, perhaps we are a bit nostalgic.  Brown eggs are pretty cool.  Agriculture is certainly different these days.  But, I'm not sure that 'agriculture' realizes how different it is.  Is it possible that agriculture has awoken to find itself transformed, and perhaps not ready to head down the road it has built?  Maybe the problem is not nostalgia.  Perhaps the problem is a fear of the future.

There are two graphs that everyone should see before continuing forward with this discussion, I believe.  I stole one and I helped create the other:

From Hiller, Powell, McCoy, and Lusk (2009, Long-term agricultural land-use trends in Nebraska: 1866-2007,
 Great Plains Research).

Data, which I show my introductory Wildlife Ecology and Management course every year, from the Nebraska
Rural Initiative.  Only 21 of the 93 counties have grown since WWII.

The reason I think it is important to see these figures is to think about WHY these demographic trends occurred.  Our farms are larger, and there are fewer farms because of that.  Agriculture has increased in efficiency and pushed many participants towards urban jobs (many of which are related to food processing, fuel creation, etc. and are end-points of agricultural products).  I have to admit to being completely amazed to see the peak population data.  Even as a population biologist (wildlife, admittedly), that surprised me.

Agriculture cannot declare 'an emergency' that was its own doing, in the same way that a young child should not complain there is no one to play with after stealing his friend's toys.  The rural environment, for better or worse, has been created by the agriculture economy and policy decisions made in our country.  We cannot go back to the days of horse-drawn cultivators, or even the days of 4-row combines.  Agriculture needs to look to the future, instead of whining about the present.  The only 'emergency' is that some portions of the agriculture sector do not, evidently, see this point.

LB884 should be dead on arrival, and its proponents should go back, scratching their heads, to develop a different strategy that tackles the real problem--agriculture is now part of a new world.  We need to be sure that we are working towards goals that can solve food production problems for the anticipated world population growth, which will also need energy.  And, food and energy need to be withdrawn with methods that ensure, ecologically, future food and energy production.  Any Sandhills rancher could suggest that we cannot overgraze the global pasture to feed our growing global 'herd'--the pasture needs to be there next year, as well.

Had enough metaphors for today?!

Let me end with suggestions for a better approach to ag literacy...or really to "resource literacy".  The College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at UNL recently held a workshop for its faculty, who developed a draft set of objectives for curriculum content in this area.  The question was framed in terms of 'what do UNL students need to know about food, water and fuel before they graduate'?

The discussion was engaging, and the product shows a forward-thinking mentality that is broader than just production agriculture.  Statements were submitted (and I am paraphrasing from my memory), such as:
  • Students should be able to describe the water cycle in a food production landscape.
  • Students should be able to contrast and compare components of food production systems in the United States with those in other countries.
  • Students should be able to calculate their energy [and water] footprint.
  • Students should be able to describe their food footprint.
  • Students should be able to compare the long-term resilience of various sources of energy.
That, my friends, is agriculture literacy for the 21st century.  Nothing about eggs or overalls.  Everything about our future.  It's time for the Nebraska Legislature to back up the train, and think about this before they leave the station.