What crop supply response looks like

The other day I asked where the new cropland was going to come from.

Today we have William Neuman reporting:
When prices for corn and soybeans surged last fall, Bill Hammitt, a farmer in the fertile hill country of western Iowa, began to see the bulldozers come out, clearing steep hillsides of trees and pastureland to make way for more acres of the state’s staple crops. Now, as spring planting begins, with the chance of drenching rains, Mr. Hammitt worries that such steep ground is at high risk for soil erosion — a farmland scourge that feels as distant to most Americans as tales of the Dust Bowl and Woody Guthrie ballads. ...
...Now, research by scientists at Iowa State University provides evidence that erosion in some parts of the state is occurring at levels far beyond government estimates. It is being exacerbated, they say, by severe storms, which have occurred more often in recent years, possibly because of broader climate shifts...
The article is a little short on quantitative facts.  But it's pretty clear that incentives are strong to clear land to try to take advantage of high prices.  And since marginal land tends to be more erodible, there will be more erosion.

But if farmers overuse the land today at the expense of future productivity, they may live to regret it.  Prices could be high next year too.  And the year after that.  A little extra care today could yield even greater profits tomorrow.

Comments

  1. Sad.

    Dumb question - why isn't there less erosion-prone land under subsidized conservation that could be profitably brought into production instead?

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  2. I think this is the essential global issue of the coming century. The greatest ecological disaster in U.S. history was the Dust Bowl. Failure to take proper care of the soil ecosystem has often been definitive issue in the collapse of civilizations. With climate change pushing the mean to more extreme weather events and increased food, feed, and fiber demands of a global population growing up to 9 billion, the pressure and use of soil ecosystems will be tremendous.

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  3. Is it fair to say that clearing marginal land generates an externality (i.e. more erosion) on neighboring land?
    If there is no externality I do not see the point of doing something different. We always assume that a farmer maximizes the stream of (discounted) future benefits. Or are farmers really that myopic?

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