Report examines affect of changing land use on rural economy

Prairie Pothole Region outlined in blue. Courtesy USGS.

(Prairie Pothole Region outlined in blue. Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.)

Land use in the Prairie Pothole Region of the upper Midwest has been shifting at an extraordinary rate in recent years, according to a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey. Land enrolled in the Federal Conservation Reserve Program continues to decline at a rapid pace.

Agricultural land use is also changing, becoming less diverse. Where the average farmer once grew seven to 12 different crops, the average is now two to five crops. Corn and soybeans dominate much of the regions cropland.

Strong prices for those crops in recent years drove land prices higher and created incentive to return land from conservation to crop production.

The report’s authors believe that trend is unlikely to change over the next few decades.

“The federal government, through programs like the CRP, is the major source of funding for conservation.,” they wrote. “With tightening fiscal budgets and details of a new farm bill being heavily debated, the future of federal investment in conservation is uncertain, with most signs pointing towards a decline.”

Agriculture is still the major economic force in much of the prairie pothole region,  named for the millions of shallow ponds and depressions that fill with water each spring, attracting ducks and migratory birds. But the study found that the non-farm economy is increasingly important to the health of rural communities.

“Once, it was believed that a strong off-farm economy was dependent on a strong farm economy,” the report’s authors wrote. “Now, research has shown that a strong farm economy and the perseverance of family farms are just as, if not more, dependent on a strong off-farm economy and labor market. These findings suggest that local governing officials looking to support agriculture in the community must also invest their time and resources in strengthening the nonfarm rural economy.”

The report also notes that tourism generated as a result of wildlife and natural areas also has a significant economic impact in rural areas.

So what does the land use trend mean for conservation and rural communities?

You can find the full report here.

The report was funded by the Plains and Prairie Potholes Landscape Conservation Cooperative.