Down on the Farm: Boom time!
Last week the Grand Forks Herald reported that a parcel of farmland near Park River, N.D. sold for more than $10,000 per acre, a record in the state. The same week, Iowa set a record when an 80-acre parcel of farmland sold for $21,900 per acre. It's boom time on the prairie.
As commodity prices rise, farmers are understandably eager to put acres which once were set aside in conservation programs back into production.
Marginal farmland is being cleared of twenty year's worth of willow and poplar to be readied for crops next spring. But what is marginal farmland?
With vastly improved varieties, the sandiest sand ridge can produce crops like it couldn't twenty years ago when the set-aside programs were at their peak.
"With the varieties of wheat they have today," a local farmer told me, "I could raise twenty bushels-per-acre on the Wal-mart parking lot."
Last summer we supposedly suffered through a drought. I am not a farmer, but even I could tell the corn was suffering. The soybeans looked wilted.
A farmer friend said he didn't even go out to check the corn field he was so scared of what he would find. After harvest, I ran into the same farmer. He was bouncing around like it was New Year's Eve. Despite the drought, he had harvested a solid crop. The wonders of genetics!
Is it any wonder the track hoes are out in force cleaning ditches that haven't been touched in decades?
Over the past three days, I drove across the Great Plains on my way to Arizona. As I passed through farmland on the back roads of North and South Dakota, Nebraska and eastern Colorado, the sights on the prairie were everywhere the same: Freshly dug ditches, track hoes on the move, and a general sense of prosperity I haven't seen on previous trips.
The last such boom was the early 1970s when wheat prices touched $7 per bushel. Bulldozers pushed down oak woods and old farmsteads with a vengeance.
At that time, the county helped farmers drain lakes, potholes and wetlands in order to get more farmland on the tax rolls. If you needed to run a ditch across a neighbor's farmland to get rid of the swamp on yours, no problem. The county invoked eminent domain and whoever's land got in the way had to adjust.
Permits today are somewhat more restrictive, at least when it comes to removing a cattail. But somebody's giving somebody permission to clean out all these ditches and make sure the water gets to the river in a bigger hurry than usual next spring.
The same unknown somebody brought in a track hoe onto the corner of my farm a couple of weeks ago and cleaned out a drainage ditch, tearing down a little grove of mature ash trees in the process. They left a nice big mess.
Nobody asked permission, or even sent a letter of notification. I was gone that day and still don't know who made the mess it or gave permission for the ditch to be cleaned.
But I am smart enough to know that when it comes to water issues, land ownership pretty much means nothing. In boom times, they'll do what they do, and they'll cross your land to do it.
When this present boom ends, which it surely will, all this land-clearing mania will look pretty silly.
The government will jump in and bail out those who over-extended. Not only that, they will set up programs to pay farmers to put marginal land back into conservation programs.
The willows groves will grow back. So will the aspen.
Somebody will come up with the novel idea to restore wetlands. In will trot the wildlife biologists with their degrees, badges, butterfly nets and bags of tadpoles.
Some entity, probably the same one that authorized all the ditching during the boom, will put up little dams everywhere at enormous expense to keep the water from getting to the river so darn fast.
The only winners in the whole absurd cycle will be those who sell track hoes, which can be used both to dig ditches and to dam them up.
When commodity prices crash, as they always do, and land prices follow, as they always do, those who overextended will blame everybody but themselves. We'll all bail them out.
And the ongoing march of folly which is American agriculture policy will start another cycle anew.