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A National Academy of Sciences study found that from 2006 to 2011, 1.3 million acres of grassland and wetland were converted to crops in the Dakotas, Nebraska and parts of Minnesota and Iowa — a conversion rate that the National Wildlife Federation compared to the Dust Bowl era.
Environmentalists say that taxpayer-supported crop insurance has contributed to that decline. Farm groups maintain that the conversion rates are a reflection of acreage set aside during hard years of low commodity prices.
The majority of corn acres added in Minnesota in recent years have come not from virgin land, Peterson said, but from acres that were used for pasture or for other crops such as wheat.
“Where are you going to find these grasslands to plow up?” he said. “They’re just not there.”
What is clear is that there is little virgin land to convert to cropland in Minnesota. By some estimates, as little as 1 percent remains of the vast native prairie that once stretched across the state.
The state and a consortium of conservation groups have launched a 25-year plan to preserve the vanishing prairie, to offset the land pressures of development and farming.
Farmers are critical in that effort, Wenzel said, but they need help from Congress. “We have nothing against farmers trying to maximize their bottom lines,” he said. “The problem is in the policy.”
Kevin Diaz • 202-383-6120