Global Food Crisis

With U.S. Farmland Maxed Out, Growers Tap Into Reserves

June 2, 2008

Part four of a special series that explores the local faces of the world's worst food crisis in decades.

Roger Stewart is putting nearly all 2,000 acres (810 hectares) of his farmland northwest of Columbus, Ohio, into corn, beans, and wheat this spring, as he has for the past 29 years.

The only exception is the 3.5 acres (1.4 hectares) around drainage ditches, which are currently locked up in a U.S. government land conservation program.

"The ground is all tillable here, and we farm almost every acre of it year after year," he said.

According to Otto Doering, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, Stewart's situation is common.

Even though soaring commodity prices are bringing new pressures to increase agricultural output, U.S. farmland is maxed out, he said, limiting any response to price hikes and highlighting how agricultural productivity has failed to keep pace with increasing world demand.

"For about the first time in our history—other than the Second World War and after the Russian grain purchase—most of our good quality land in the United States is in production right now," he said.

About 2 million acres (810,000 hectares) coming out of the reserve program will be put back into production this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Another 6 million acres (2.4 million hectares), much of it formerly hay, pasture, and grassland, will be put into corn, soybeans, and wheat, added Doering, who is also the president of the American Agricultural Economics Association.

But that's it, he said.

Most of the land in the conservation program is marginal—such as the drainage ditches on Stewart's farm—and most untilled lands outside the program are undesirable even at today's prices.

"The land base is relatively fixed, and when you get these high prices what you have are the different commodities fighting for acres on the basis of profitability to the farmer," he said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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