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Ag Land Tax Committee Hears Trees at Risk, Revs Chain Saw on Conservation Easements

Last updated on 2013.01.08

According to Bob Mercer's reports, the Legislature's Ag Land Assessment Tax Force spent its time Monday hearing concerns about trees and conservation and then taking a swipe at those concerns.

The committee heard that South Dakota's potential-income tax on farmers is driving them to tear up shelterbelts and plow up more land for crops:

Trees and shelter belts are being ripped out in parts of eastern South Dakota as land owners seek bigger yields of crops from their properties.

...Spink County Commission member Jeff Albrecht of Doland told the task force Monday that high demand and high prices have led farmers to work more ground.

"You look around Spink County and see acres and acres of land torn up to put crop in," he said.

...Sen. Larry Rhoden, the task force's chairman, said Monday marked the first time he's heard that keeping trees was a concern.

Rhoden, R-Union Center, agreed that agricultural practices are changing. He said he's seeing more crops being planted farther west of the Missouri River in what previously was grazing country.

Lyle Perman, a producer from the Lowry area of Walworth County... said the soils-rating system that is the starting point used by county directors of equalization for assessing land values is a tax policy that is leading some producers to shift more ground into crops.

The system is based on a parcel's potential to produce [Bob Mercer, "Tax Policy to Reward Tree Claims Considered," Aberdeen American News, September 18, 2012].

Yet the task force recommends weakening one of the best tools that landowners have to protect shelterbelts, native prairie, and other land that shouldn't be farmed: conservation easements:

The state's advisory task force on agricultural land assessment made two recommendations Monday for the Legislature to consider in the 2013 session.

One would limit to 30 years the duration of conservation easements reached in the future.

...The 30-year cap came from the panel's chairman, Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center [Bob Mercer, "Ag-Land Assessment Task Force Recommends Changes," Aberdeen American News, September 18, 2012].

Senator Rhoden backed a 30-year cap on conservation easements during the 2012 session when he co-sponsored Rep. Betty Olson's anti-conservationist HB 1087. Senator Rhoden apparently expects that doing the same thing over and over will get different results from the 2012 House, which killed that bill on a 22-to-45 vote.

As I noted last winter, limiting property rights in this fashion seems fundamentally un-Republican. Telling landowners they can't establish permanent easements calls into question the viability of perpetual easements for projects like the Keystone XL pipeline as well as perpetual trusts for financial assets.

The financial pressure created by South Dakota's complicated and ill-conceived potential-income tax on farmers is putting shelterbelts and other conservation practices at risk. We need strong conservation easements to protect the land from that pressure.

Either that, or just reform the ag assessment tax to a simple, fair, straight-up income tax.


  1. G-Man 2012.09.21

    The Dust Bowl comes to mind all over again. Have we forgotten that the major reason for the shelter belts being planted decades ago was to protect the farmstead from dirt and dust blowing into homes and barns? Yes they were put in place for utility before beauty was a consideration. Also, the replowing up of the prairie west of the Missouri is the same big mistake we, as Americans, made that eventually contributed to the Dust Bowl of the 1930's. The Great Plains, west of the Missouri, have always been in a semi-arid environment as it is in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains. This means consistent and reliable rain water does not form until it gets east of the Missouri, in the more humid corn belt. I know because I've lived in eastern Montana and western South Dakota. Once again, we are going into extreme drought conditions, with another forecasted mild Fall and possibly another snowless winter.

  2. Jana 2012.09.21

    Wonder what the 'True Environmentalists' think of this?

  3. JoeBoo 2012.09.21

    Some shelter belts are being taken out, but generally the ones that are being taken out were poorly planned, planted, and maintained.

    As far as the dust bowl, yes trees need to be planted, maintained, etc. But back then farmers planted fewer plants per acre, plowed everything once if not twice, and planted more small grain which though is prolly better for the ground isn't great for root mass in the soil to help maintain the ground, rather then cause dust bowl like conditions.

  4. John 2012.09.21

    The folks doing this (pulling out shelterbelts, plowing under the prairie to plant corn) are not true environmentalists. They are not conservatives. Conservatives conserve; they practice conservation. They don't grow GM-grains (roundup resistant) which then allegedly cause high rates of cancer according to peer reviewed studies.,0,1830412.story

  5. larry kurtz 2012.09.21

    Jana: two items swept through my twitter feed that reminded me of my dad weeping when he watched Brookings County being cleared for center-pivot irrigation.

    One of his best friends fought the tax law but sent a D10 through his shelter belts.

    Although the guy who bought our farm realized that the copious glacial till grew better trees than corn he left the ones Dad planted and farmed around them.

  6. Justin 2012.09.21

    This is where I grew up, and Commissioner Albrecht and his family are good family friends.

    It seems a great irony that most of these shelter belts were planted in exchange for the rest of a quarter of land for free and now they are being torn up.

    I understand the economics of it though. Many of the shelter belts are also almost completely dead as trees don't live forever.

    I went back to Spink for the 4th of July a couple of years ago and it was an eerie site. Water still in the ditches from spring flooding but dust storms in the air from the later drought.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.09.21

    I've seen some rough shelterbelts. Yes, sometimes those trees need to go. But why not optimize our conservation efforts and replant?

  8. Justin 2012.09.21

    It's all about money, I guess.

    I don't know but I would speculate that no till farming methods do more to prevent erosion than shelter belts do, especially when they are dead.

    Around our home farm, my family has ripped out the dead trees and re-planted. That's how most of the people around Spink County seem to approach it. We have had horrible luck with the trees actually growing and thriving, though. If there is a shelter belt without an occupied home on it, more often than not, the dead trees are ripped out and converted to arable land. Most of them used to have homesteads, but we all know the trends.

    Some of the shelter belts have naturally thrived and repopulated like a real forest. Nobody goes to the work of taking them out, it would cost too much money. Those are also usually the best hunting spots, and they are extremely valuable as such. They are also a nuisance to drive past as they are loaded with deer (especially when surrounded by corn which has become more common).

    Don't get me wrong, I like shelter belts. I had some of my best times as a kid playing around in the dying ones, especially. Whatever we are doing, it isn't preventing dust storms during droughts. Like I said, I have never seen an odder sight than dust storms when there is sitting water in the ditches and sloughs.

    I would like to hear what the conservation experts think. My gut reaction when I see dust storms is to blame the farmers that still till their land frequently. The shelter belts are so sparsely distributed I have always doubted their efficacy (at least in Spink County, which is the only place I have an opinion on). I don't remember many days without howling winds across the prairie. I always thought it was just another boondoggle to give land away to white people from Northern Europe to encourage them to move here so our government could keep the country white as we populated our acquired lands with immigrants.

  9. mike 2012.09.21

    Not sure if I'm in the right topic or not but didn't Kristi Noem push for the new ag land taxes that are upseting farmers this year? (I'm speaking of her time in the legislature with Dave Knudson)

  10. John 2012.09.21

    Invariably the shelterbelts in sad condition are those where the non-conservationist allowed cattle grazing in them for far too long - trampling and compacting the roots, urinating and defecating on them, consuming the new growth. It ain't rocket science.

  11. Justin 2012.09.21

    We don't have ranch land in Spink County, it has been far too valuable as farm land to waste land on that for a long time. Some of the worst land is still pasture land, but there are hardly any cattle anymore.

    Sometimes trees just don't grow well in places. Or, more likely, they have just died and not been replanted since the federal land acts. Go buy a tree at a nursery and see if you can find one that has an advertised life span of over 40 years.

    I'd say normally they actually collect valuable topsoil but just don't get enough rain to thrive or repopulate. When there is a big tree root next to a seedling and limited rain, the big tree wins out but eventually dies. That makes them even more valuable to turn into farm land. Kind of like the old Soil Bank/CRP land that wasn't planted in the Dust Bowl days. It went from being the worst land to the best land.

  12. Justin 2012.09.21

    I shouldn't say we don't have cattle, we have very few free range cattle. We have some big beef producers, particularly between Redfield and Hitchcock. But they aren't grass fed, they are primarily in feed lots and eat corn.

  13. Donald Pay 2012.09.21

    I recall this being discussed as an issue when I was a biology major at Augustana College in the early 70s. The worry then was that the trees would eventually age out, and the shelterbelts weren't being managed to be sustained after that happened.

    Cap and trade provides one means for ag producers to obtain money to plant and maintain shelterbelts (for carbon sequestration).

  14. Justin 2012.09.21

    I know my father does plant hundreds of new trees every year, sometimes over a thousand. I'm sure he would like to get paid for it. It doesn't cost much though, and you should only be paid if they grow. Unfortunately, there is a very low success rate for saplings with the precipitation levels, especially in years like this.

  15. Garyd 2012.09.21

    Let's see, now days we have minimum till, no till, conser till. In the 30's we had plow, plow and plow. Times and tillage practices have changed.

    Also, many shelter belts have lived their useful lives and need to be taken out. Some should be replaced but others not.

    True envoirmentalist do change with the times but some live in the past as do some of the people who comment on this blog!

  16. Nick Nemec 2012.09.22

    As an active farmer I feel qualified to speak on this thread. No till farming has done more than any other practice to reduce wind and water soil erosion in South Dakota. Through the use of chemical herbicides to kill weeds wind erosion, and the resulting dust storms, is nearly non-existent in my corner of SD. The previous crop's stubble does more to prevent the wind from picking up soil particles than a shelter belt ever could. I'd rather have millions and millions of little guys (standing stubble) on my team than a few dozen of hundred big guys (trees). If we have several years of extended drought with little to no crop growth the beneficial effect of the previous crop's stubble will be reduced but would still be better than bare ground. There just aren't enough trees to do much for soil wind erosion.

    There are many good reasons to plant and maintain trees, in the Great Plains widespread prevention of soil erosion isn't one of them. Trees are better for localized protection from the wind and are essential for anyone attempting to raise livestock.

    I wish people who were opposed to the new tax scheme would present better arguments for their opposition. Taxing actual income is one such argument.

  17. larry kurtz 2012.09.22

    Songbirds are the most effective insect control but chemicals are cheap, right?

  18. larry kurtz 2012.09.22

    "Steve Running, a professor with the University of Montana’s College of Forestry and Conservation, published a new article this week in the journal Science, suggesting that humans may be on the verge of extracting the planet’s available plant resources.

    He said land put into agriculture often yields a lower production than the natural ecosystem. But when augmented with irrigation and fertilizer, it exceeds the natural ecosystem."

  19. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.09.23

    Nick, I like the "lots of little guys vs. a few big guys" argument. We apparently don't run the risk of a dust bowl by tearing out shelterbelts.

    Would an argument for protecting native prairie from cultivation be a better argument against the ag assessment tax? Mr. Kurtz submits this link about folks in Nick's neighborhood watching corn replace prairie:

  20. charlie hoffman/blackberried 2012.09.23

    Corey; Senator John Thune has been working on a Sod Buster bill but it has much opposition in Congress. It might be too late for it to make much of a difference. What should have been implemented 20 years ago when farmers were going broke breaking new ground was a Sod Busting USDA law severing all payments to all Native Sod Broken up. Agree with 99% of Nicks statements above. Even the income tax. Which would be fairer than the expected management production tax our property is under today.

  21. Justin 2012.09.23

    That is an interesting article, Larry/Cory.

    But the comment about California Redwoods doesn't hold much weight. Our shelter belts are nothing of the sort. Redwoods are the longest living trees in the world. Shelter belts are usually <60 year lived trees that usually don't grow well where they were planted anyway.

    As I said previously, I firmly believe the required planting of shelter belts was a quid pro quo justification for giving land away for free to Europeans when we were still banning immigration from non-white countries. It was a carrot that is in no way relevant to the current conditions (and possibly the contemporaneous conditions). I do know my father is very conservative and has always believed in shelter belts more than I do.

    One caveat to note is that with all the corn we have been planting, tilling has actually become more common again. Corn stalks that aren't at least lightly disced are a little too heavy to replant on. Still, lightly disced corn stalks are far better for erosion than fully disced wheat.

    Farmers know that topsoil is their lifeblood and they don't play around with that fact to be anti-green. Finally, if you do what you are supposed to be doing as a farmer, a dust storm is a gold storm: If that topsoil collects in your field, you are very, very happy.

  22. larry kurtz 2012.09.23

    Gnarled and ugly as they are, box elders are the only native maple and cottonwoods lived in far larger communities before white Europeans cleared them.

    Make aquifers community property and tax users.

  23. larry kurtz 2012.09.23

    Box elder trees produce sugar in greater quantities per acre than corn does without any tillage at all.

  24. Justin 2012.09.23

    ...and yet box elder trees are seen as a blight on farm land because they also produce the bugs of the same name that eat all the sugar.

    Healthy crops produce plenty of photosynthesis and they don't require a backhoe for their removal. There are also refineries that are available to process corn, while I have never heard of a "box elder" moonshine.

    I think this is a no-brainer. Dead trees vs thriving crops.

    I recall at least one elementary teacher and one secondary teacher (although my sister doesn't remember this) that "taught" us that our land used to be covered with trees and it isn't now because of Indian "slash and burn" agriculture. Clearly, that is a load of crap. Trees don't grow well on the grasslands with limited precipitation and if they did at one point, the glaciers cleared them. We didn't have Native Americans harvesting billions of bushels of grain.

  25. larry kurtz 2012.09.23

    There are at least 77 instances of weaponized fire on the pre-settlement Black Hills, likely many more than that on the prairie: carbon sequestration on a regional scale filtering water just now reaching some aquifer recharges.

    A court decided that you own your catchment: learn or pay more for your water in the future because skirmishes in the coming water wars are intensifying.

  26. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.09.23

    Charlie, I appreciate your candor on the tax issue. Indeed, if you're going to tax a farmer's income, it's fairer to tax his actual income than some spreadsheet guesstimate of what his income could be. Good grief: imagine if we applied such a "potential income tax" to all individuals. Heck, we'd all have to quit blogging and commenting, because we could be using this time to pump gas or sew quilts to sell on Etsy!

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