The new sodbusters - Satellite
photos indicate habitat is dwindling fast
(Note: This one fairly crawls with language
deception. Note, too, that the satellite map is undated. The 'rancher'
quoted sounds more like a Nature Conservancy guru, talking
'environment' and 'ecosystems.')
July 10, 2005
By Ben Shouse email@example.com or
The Argus Leader
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Highmore, South Dakota - Technology and government subsidies have
spawned a new era of sodbusting in central South Dakota, pitting
struggling farmers against the state's signature ecosystem and the
nation's most productive duck habitat.
Crop breeding and better machinery have helped make plowing virgin
prairie more feasible in a region known as the Missouri Coteau. South
Dakota, at the coteau's southern tip, is "ground
zero for this grassland loss," according to a researcher from
Ducks Unlimited, a conservation and
hunting group that fears the destruction could drain much of the life
from this indispensible place.
Using satellite photographs of thousands of tracts blanketing the
coteau, researcher Scott Stephens of Bismarck, North Dakota, and
others have documented the loss of 88 square miles of native grassland
in central South Dakota since 1984 -- 10 percent of the area's
The trend appears to be accelerating, and farmers and officials say
government subsidies and new technology are responsible.
Conservationists and local ranchers want to halt the loss, while some
farmers argue their new methods are good for wildlife.
In the end, though, neither side may have much control over the larger
economic forces that are breaking up the prairie.
"Government programs promote sodbusting at this time," says
Jim Iverson, director of the Miller office of the Farm Service Agency,
the federal agency responsible for most subsidy programs.
"The incentive to break up sod is that there are some price
protections on the crop that they raise. There is no price protection
Striving to survive
New machinery and crop varieties are also making farming possible in
places that were once too rocky or too dry. Rising land prices are
prompting some ranchers to sell and farmers to break more of it up for
"It's getting tough out here, and people are trying to do
whatever they can to stay afloat," said Kevin Baloun, who has
broken several parcels of native grass around Highmore. He said land
prices and rental rates mean farmers need to increase their acreage
just to maintain their incomes.
"If somebody lets go of a piece of grass, somebody will generally
pick it up," he said.
That's what worries Jim Faulstich, a rancher who lives northeast of
Baloun. His cattle graze native grasses such as big blue stem,
switchgrass and Indian grass, and resurgent native flowers such as
echinacea, lead plant and scurf pea.
"If there is any one thing that I see as a threat to the
environment right now, it's the conversion of grasslands," he
said. "Once an ecosystem is torn up from conversion to farm
ground, it's gone, it's lost."
Sudden rise in farmland
The losses are mounting, according to the Ducks Unlimited study.
Using satellite images, the group documented the conversion of 88
square miles of grassland in the southern tip of the Missouri Coteau.
The area includes parts of Hyde, Hand, Potter and Faulk counties, plus
smaller portions of neighboring counties.
From 1984 to 2000, the rate of conversion averaged between 3 to 4
square miles per year, except for 1990 and 1991, when the rate was
between 8 and 9 square miles a year.
Then, around 2000, sodbusting increased, reaching 7 square miles in
2002 and 2003.
"Something changed here," Stephens said.
He hopes further research will reveal what that is, but farmers and
ranchers have plenty of possible explanations:
- Greater farm production is possible because of drought-tolerant
crop varieties, machines that remove rocks more efficiently and farm
programs that support prices.
- Out-of-town investors and pheasant hunters are buying land here,
which can raise prices.
- In turn, many who buy at those high prices might have to convert
to crops to get the maximum return from the land.
- Many area ranchers are nearing retirement and might sell the land
to boost their savings.
Investors play a role
Baloun said all four factors are at work, including out-of-towners
helping to drive up prices.
"Being that the stock market is poor, investors are coming out
here and investing," he said.
His cousin, Brad Baloun, owns several parcels, including some that
Kevin has rented. Originally from Faulk County, Brad Baloun now
divides his time between Hyde County and Sioux Falls. In addition to
the land, he is part owner of a handful of Taco John's and HuHot
He favors technology as an explanation for grassland conversion and
says drought-tolerant crops have allowed more farmers in the area to
grow corn and soybeans.
"Farm programs never played a big part of my decision," he
Whatever the reasons for conversion, wildlife groups are trying to
find ways to slow it down.
Ducks Unlimited has bought more than 2,000 acres -- more than three
square miles -- in the southern coteau.
And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service buys about $8
million worth of conservation easements a year -- agreements in
which owners give up the right to ever farm the land in return for
repayment of part of its fair market value.
But many in the neighboring communities say easements and land
purchases work against farmers by reducing the amount of land
available for cultivation.
"It's another competitor that production agriculture has to
contend with," said Iverson, the FSA director, who also
ranches north of Miller. "For production agriculture, the man
that has to make a living off the land, it's counterproductive for
Other critics say easements and conservation purchases take land
off the tax rolls. But that is not true for easements or private
Farm harm disputed
Brad Baloun said he is neutral on the issue but sees why easements
bother some farmers.
"It's not that they're anti-duck, it's not that they're
anti-grass, it's just that there is no longer any local control of
the land," he said.
He and others argue that farming can be better for wildlife than
grass, especially no-till farming. He would like to see more
research on the differences between prairie and farm.
"It's possible that these people who are doing this with
Ducks Unlimited are just throwing their money away," he said.
Stephens, the Bismarck researcher, disagrees.
"For any grassland-dependent wildlife, if you're converting
the chunk to cropland, that's a bad thing," he said.
Ducks do nest on farmland, but research shows they are more likely
to nest successfully on native grassland.
Science may be settling on an answer, but in the more complex,
contentious world of land-use politics, discord reigns.
Scaling back commodity programs might not be politically feasible.
They send, on average, $2.9 million a year to Hyde County and $7.6
million to Hand County. South Dakota's congressional delegation
opposes cuts in what farmers receive.
Changing the rules for what land may receive subsidies could be
difficult. But Stephens said there ought to be more serious
enforcement of one such rule, known as Sodbuster.
"You can convert almost anything as long as you have a,
quote, 'conservation plan,' and that's pretty loosely
defined," he said. "People are signing off on whatever
plans people are coming up with."
Easements and land purchases, though voluntary, are controversial.
And there are almost 400 East River landowners who want to sell an
easement, but the government does not have the funds set aside,
said Harris Hoistad of the fish and wildlife service office in
There is some agreement on other possible solutions, most of which
involve reworking the funding scheme for government conservation
Like other subsidies, payments for the Conservation Reserve
Program and the like go directly to farmers, but they encourage
taking land out of production.
"Too much of the focus of previous farm bills has been on
increasing production as much as possible," said Sen. John
Thune. "We've got to shape farm policy that becomes an
incentive for conservation."
One potential tool is the Grassland Reserve Program, which pays
farmers to protect and enhance grass. But Stephens called GRP
"woefully underfunded." In 2005, it spent about $2.4
million in South Dakota, less than the average commodity payments
to Hyde County alone.
Iverson of the FSA said such incentives would be better than
easement programs but that small farmers have not always had equal
access to conservation payments. "We do very little for the
little farmer out here. There are no programs for the little
Family farms and ranches, as much as ducks, are caught in the
middle. Sometimes it comes down to a stark choice between
preserving native grass and preserving profits.
More producers are deciding to stay on the land by plowing more of
it. And those who want to save grass agonize about whether to
impose their values on others.
"I hate to say it should be mandatory, but I just wish that
people would look at what they're doing and the ecosystem they're
doing it to," said Faulstich, who has easements on about
1,600 acres of his ranch.
If they don't come to the same conclusion Faulstich did, the only
barrier to more sodbusting is the market. Cattle prices have risen
recently, which could make it easier for ranchers to hold on to
But Dorn Barnes, who farms near Highmore, said the market will
keep pushing in the other direction.
"I think, in 20 years, everything that can be farmed in Hyde
County is going to be farmed, and only the marginal ground is
going to be left for pasture."
View a satellite image that shows land use in two townships in
Hyde County [pdf; takes awhile to load with a dialup connection]
Copyright 2005, The Argus Leader.