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Farm News & Views - May 16, 2023

A couple of weeks ago, I reported about a drought in southwest Kansas, that has decimated crops in the region. Since growing conditions have been the worst in recent memory in much of the Great Plains, farmers in the region may abandon 85% of their wheat acres due to lack of rain and parched soil. Grain traders are warning that because of historically poor crops in this region, and the potential for the failure of a deal to export Ukraine's grain, U.S. wheat stocks will fall to a nine-year low by next month, which may lead to higher bread and staple food prices.

Since my preferred mode of travel across the country is by private vehicle on secondary highways so that I can see what is happening in farm country, I’ve noticed creeping non-farm development on land that had previously produced crops and lush pastures. Some of these fields now sprout solar arrays, delivery service warehouses, and sprawling country gentleman residential developments. This trend has caught the attention of Richard Brain, an environmental toxicologist with Syngenta Crop Protection, who is the lead researcher and writer of a report in Agricultural Science & Technology Journal that investigates the shift of land from agricultural production to urban uses. The article states that our agricultural land is being squeezed between a growing population's need for urban growth and the pressure to set aside more acres of land for conservation. In a decade and a half, from 2001 to 2016, 4.1 million acres were converted to urban uses, and about 7 million acres were shifted to low-density residential land use. There are about 2.3 billion acres of land in the U.S., which includes 3% for urban use, 29% is in permanent grassland, pasture, and range; 28% is forest; 17% is cropland; 14% is special use; and 9% is miscellaneous land used for transportation, parks and wildlife, defense and industrial production, and miscellaneous farm uses. Brain believes that at some point we’ll need to acknowledge how much pressure can put on existing land before some degree of compromise is reached between society's expectations and food security.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California law banning the sale of pork in the state from pigs that were raised in tightly confined spaces was lawful. The justices voted 5-4 to uphold a lower court's dismissal of a lawsuit by the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation that sought to invalidate the law. The industry had argued that the measure violated a U.S. Constitution provision called the Commerce Clause that empowered the federal government, not states, to regulate interstate commerce. The 2018 California ballot initiative called Proposition 12, bars sale of pork, veal and eggs from animals whose confinement failed to meet certain minimum space requirements. The law mandates that pig confinement spaces must be large enough for animals to turn around, lie down, stand up and extend their limbs. Animal rights groups contend that some pork producers confine pigs in cages so small that they can’t turn around for most of their lives. Scott Hays, president of the National Pork Producers Council and a Missouri pork producer, stated that allowing state overreach will increase prices for consumers and drive small farms out of business, leading to more consolidation.

Wendell Berry wrote, “To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd.”

Bob has been an agricultural educator and farm and ranch management consultant for over 40 years in southwest Colorado. He writes about agricultural issues from his farm near Cortez, and has helped to produce farm reports on KSJD for more than a dozen years.