“Geopolitics vs. Conservation Hits the U.S. Farm Belt”

In an announcement I’ve been watching very closely from my writing desk (see: congressional hearing listening station), Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has decided against allowing farmers to leave the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to increase planted acres of grain in the USA because of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Vilsack was reacting to a recent uptick in calls from certain agriculture economists, Republican politicians and agribusiness exporters to “open up CRP” to replace projected decreases in production by Ukrainian farmers.

I fully support this decision and I hope that Secretary Vilsack holds to it, which I’ll get to shortly, but here’s a wildly over-simplified and brief description of the global geopolitics and conservation impacts involved with this issue:

  • Geopolitics #1: Ukraine, for us in the USA-centric world, is a leading producer and exporter of grains and oilseeds, wheat and sunflowers/sunflower oil primarily. If Ukrainian farmers are impacted by the Russian invasion, and they are, things could get dicey when it comes to regular Ukrainian planting, harvest, yields and general farm outputs. This impacts Europe, Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East food supply chain in a pretty big way.
  • Geopolitics #2: Multinational corporate agribusinesses — those who buy and sell and import and export the things farmers grow, we’re talking ADM, Cargill, Bunge and others — freak out a little bit when their existing supply chains break. They talk a lot about “feeding the world” as a sort of humanitarian function they provide for society. But a lot of the time, right now for instance, they would love to sell things because the income and profits they can earn is very high. But they have to be able to buy something in order to sell it.
  • Geopolitics #3: Multinational corporate agribusinesses are politically powerful and have money and influence and connections through massive lobbying apparatuses. So they can do things like formally ask a secretary of agriculture in the USA for a massive concession of existing conservation program rules in order to get what they want.

CRP is in the discussion here because it currently has 22,094,150 enrolled acres on 314,880 farms, according to the most recent USDA CRP data report. CRP acres are those that have, at some point since the program was established in the 1985 Farm Bill, been used primarily to produce rowcrops (corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, rice, barley, etc.). So, the geopolitical “feed the world by replacing Ukrainian production with U.S. production” theory goes that CRP acres are some of the most readily available in the world right now.

The truth is, most CRP acres are much more valuable as conservation land than as marginal rowcrop production. CRP pays farmers an annual payment based theoretically on what local cropland rental rates would be to replace rowcrop production with grasslands, wildlife habitat, forests, pollinator habitat and more. There’s a lot of problems and limitations with CRP, but with some reforms in the next farm bill (which I will write about in future Keep It Rural newsletters) CRP could really help to reduce water pollution, soil erosion and global warming. It could also help to support healthier habitat for fish, wildlife, pollinators and people. The point is that Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack has done a good thing. Plowing up, fertilizing and planting a bunch of partially-restored marginal acres in rural America is going to have a negative impact here in the USA while likely not making any difference in “feeding the world.” I am a loud and clear Vilsack critic for sure (maybe you should consider your retirement options, Mr. Secretary), but this is a good decision.

Rural Reading List

If that was a little wonky for you, here’s some more clean and clear rural reporting and commentary to remind you why you subscribe to this newsletter. Enjoy these articles:

Commentary: To Seize ‘Unique Moment,’ Rural Areas Need Help Building Capacity

Commentary in the Daily Yonder by Tom Barkin, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, who lays out the Keep It Rural favorite theme of rural communities needing support to land federal investments in our hometowns.

Where Are Families Taking Advantage of the Home Broadband Discount?

The Daily Yonder maps where people are, and aren’t, accessing a monthly benefit to help poor and working class people pay for high speed internet. 

At the Crossroads: State of the Economy in Indian Country

Indian Country Today’s Mark Trahant is always a good read. This “At the Crossroads” series is great reporting on Tribal and Native American issues all over the map.

Democrats Out Of Touch With Rural Voters

Commentary by Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in rural Minnesota, is our latest suggestion in the continuing “Democrats’ rural problem” genre.

One More Thing: April Is not the Cruelest Month. It’s Poetry Month.

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain

-T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

April is Poetry Month, among other things, and it happens to also be cursed by the poet T.S. Eliot in the poem that I found to be among the most annoying required readings as a poetry student in my college years. Eliot is from St. Louis, you see, and any Missouri poetry-adjacent person is supposed to revere “The Wasteland” as the greatest poem of all time. I did not find it thus, and did not end up majoring in poetry at Missouri’s largest public university, you see. 

Anyway, I would urge you to check out Poetry Magazine’s extensive online offerings to get you inspired and lyricized as the lilacs and lilies and layers of spring come around in your part of the world. Skip the Eliot for other (and better) rural poets, of which there are many. Happy Tuesday, Keep It Rural readers, and I hope that the tumbling of spring is lifting your spirits and fortunes. Have a great week.

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