Study Reveals that U.S. Great Plains’ Historical Stability Vulnerable to Rising Energy Prices and Biofuels Demand

It’s harvest time on the Great Plains, and a new study shows how energy prices and the demand for biofuels are affecting the nation’s breadbasket.

The study, by researchers at Colorado State University and the University of Michigan, reveals that, although Great Plains agricultural production, population and income trends have been surprisingly stable during the past 100 years, the recent rise of energy prices offers challenges and opportunities for the future of this region.

Published in the October 2007 issue of BioScience, the study examines whether it is possible, in the long term, to maintain agriculturally-orientated populations in the Great Plains region as well as in similar regions around the world. In the United States, the Great Plains region encompasses the broad expanse of prairie and steppe east of the Rocky Mountains.

"Great Plains agricultural production has increased, while rural populations and agricultural income have remained stable during the last 40 years. These trends are a result of large increases in irrigated agriculture, livestock production and federal farm payments," said William Parton, senior research scientist at Colorado State’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory.

The study shows that the region is not homogeneous, with different experiences in three broad categories of counties: those with metropolitan cities, those with rural populations and irrigated agriculture, and those with rural populations but without irrigated agriculture. Metropolitan counties grew rapidly in the Great Plains during the past 75 years, just as they have elsewhere in the United States.

"Our key findings apply to rural, agricultural areas," said Myron Gutmann, director of the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research and professor of history at the University of Michigan. "Rural areas with irrigation have done surprisingly well, sustained by increases in production of crops and livestock. Their ability to produce large quantities of corn gives them great potential because demand for biofuels has doubled the price of corn. Even though rural areas without irrigation lost population prior to 1970, their populations, agricultural production and incomes have kept up fairly well since then."

Despite long-term stability and positive future potential, price increases of the past three years create uncertainty about the sustainability of recent trends. Growing demand for grain can increase profits for farmers and produce work that will add to population. At the same time, agriculture on the Great Plains uses large amounts of energy for irrigation and equipment, and energy prices drive up the cost of fertilizer. It is not yet possible to see how well farmers, their employees and their neighbors will do in the changing environment of rising prices for the energy they consume and the food and fiber they produce.

This study of sustained trends indicates that many of the potential threats to the Great Plains that have worried the local population, scientists and policy makers in the past are less significant in a long-term context than those threats may have appeared at one moment or another. Nevertheless, the region’s reliance on agriculture, the variability of weather and the ever-changing demands of the market means that nothing is ever settled for long and that changes are always just around the corner.

Dennis Ojima, senior scholar in residence at the H. John Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, Washington, D.C., co-authored this paper with Parton and Gutmann.

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