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Cropland use complicated issue

The total amount of cropland decreased by 14 million acres from 2017 to 2022 in the United States, according to the 2022 Census of Agriculture released in February by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That follows a trend of cropland reduction of more than 50 years.

Between 2017 and 2022 the number of farms in Wisconsin with harvested cropland decreased from 49,304 to 44,207. During the same period the number of harvested cropland acres decreased from 9.2 million to 8.7 million.

A study was released in February by researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago Energy Resources Center. Commissioned by state corn organizations in six states, the study evaluated the environmental and economic impacts of land-use change in areas that moved in and out of cropland through long periods of time. The study aimed to determine land use and soil organic-carbon stocks on 1,000 parcels across 36 years.

“As part of this study we conducted a historical analysis going back to 1985 and found that longer time intervals need to be considered when determining the environmental and economic impacts of land-use change,” said Ken Copenhaver with CropGrowr and co-author of the study. “Notably this is something that current regulations are not taking into consideration.”

Researchers used satellite and aerial photographs to show that their analysis differs from previous studies that focused on shorter time intervals when examining land-use changes. Of the 1,000 land parcels analyzed in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin, 371 parcels previously identified as land-use change from native grasslands remained in cropland. About 600 parcels transitioned into non-cropland.

Farmers interviewed for the study said the most common reason for returning land to crops was the difficulty of re-enrolling in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program. The federal program, run by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, aims to conserve and improve soil, water and habitat by converting extremely erodible cropland to vegetative cover such as grasses and trees. The program pays landowners rental payments if they agree to maintain land cover for a period typically lasting from 10 to 15 years. Farmers also cited reduced cattle prices as a factor in returning the land to crops. Increased demand was not a significant factor.

“The insight gained from this study helps us understand the long-term impacts on land use and allows us to have the best data available when modeling the life cycle of corn,” said Stan Nelson, Iowa Corn Promotion Board president.

Scott Richman, chief economist for the Renewable Fuels Association, said the debate about land-use change is devoid of discussing causes other than biofuels, specifically the role of urbanization.

“It appears that some environmental organizations would be pleased to see cropland shrink,” he said. “Recently they have been hyper-focused on ‘land-use change,’ concerned about alleged past expansion of the area on which crops are produced.”

He said that change is often solely attributed to biofuels. But that ignores the fact that cropland area decreased as ethanol output increased substantially since the early 2000s. And renewable-energy devices were added to more than 150,000 farms from 2017 to 2022, a 15 percent increase from the previous census.

The largest share of the increase was attributed to solar panels located on almost 117,000 operations. In 2022 there were 3,642 farms in Wisconsin with renewable-energy equipment – an increase from 2,935 in the 2017 census. More than 2,400 farms in the state had solar panels in 2022, a 53 percent increase from 2017.

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