The Senate advanced one bad bill for agriculture, the environment, and citizen participation last week; now the House has a chance to pass one good bill for agriculture, the environment, and farmer choice.
The good bill is Senate Bill 136, what prime sponsor Senator Jim Peterson (D-4/Revillo) calls the “buffer strip” bill. SB 136 offers farmers who take land alongside lakes, streams, and rivers out of cultivation and plant grass. These grassy buffer strips, no more than fifty feet wide, would act as natural filters to slow runoff and keep pollutants out of lakes and streams. As Senator Peterson pointed out in testimony before Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources on February 11, those grassy strips would also serve as outstanding habitat for pheasant, deer, and other game and wildlife. In return for this voluntary conservation effort, SB 136 would allow counties to change the assessment of those restored riparian zones from cropland to noncropland, lowering the taxes on those acres.
Minnesota passed a law last year requiring 50-foot riparian buffer zones along its waters last year. SB 136 is entirely voluntary. Anybody who wants to plant corn right up to the creek can keep doing so. SB 136 is an incentive, not a penalty.
No legislator has voted against SB 136 in Senate Ag, the full Senate, or House Ag. The only opposition in testimony has come from the Department of Revenue and the South Dakota Corn Growers Association. DOR’s Mike Houdyshell and Corn Growers’ lobbyist Matt McCaulley say they’re all for conservation and wildlife. They just don’t like the tax implications of SB 136. Both expressed concern to Senate Ag that we don’t know how many acres would be affected by SB 136, how much land valuation we would lose, and how much tax burden we’d have to shift to other taxpayers. (The Corn Growers have opposed other measures to ease the tax burden on conservation-minded farmers who protect grasslands.)
Revenue and the Corn Growers are right: we can’t know how much land would be affected, since we can’t know how many farmers would choose to participate in the program and how many acres they’d take out of production.
But we can do math and figure out a logical upper bound for the tax impact of putting grassy strips along the Big Sioux River, which has been in the news lately for being really ooky.
- The Big Sioux River is 419 miles long.
- About two thirds of the river is entirely in South Dakota; the last third separates South Dakota and Iowa. So at most, SB 136 could address assessed value of the entire west bank and the northern two-thirds of the east bank. That’s 419 × 1.67 = 698 miles of shoreline.
- A 50-foot buffer strip one mile long is 6.06 acres (yes, yes, rivers are wiggly—let’s not introduce fractal analysis into the problem)
- 698 shoreline miles × 6.06 acres/mile = 4,240 total acres to plant buffer strips along every South Dakota mile of the Big Sioux River.
- In Senate Ag, Senator Peterson said the difference in taxes he pays on his cropland and his noncropland is $12 an acre. Houdyshell pointed to some choice streamside cropland in Moody County that, under SB 136, could be assessed down to pay $28.89 less per acre.
- The total tax cost under SB 136 of turning every South Dakota mile of the Big Sioux shoreline (including Falls Park) into a riparian buffer zone would range between $50,900 and $123,000.
These figures are absurd maxima, because they assume that every foot of Big Sioux shoreline is currently taxed and cultivated as cropland. A drive through Canton, Sioux Falls, or Brookings County will show that’s not the case. SB 136 doesn’t give Cherapa Place a tax break, no matter what they plant. Plus—or in this case, minus—we have to figure only a fraction of the fraction of landowners currently cropping along the Big Sioux would take the SB 136 deal.
But even if the total tax cost for incentivizing a complete grassification of the Big Sioux shores came close to the range suggested by the above numbers, it would still be a small fraction of the seven figures Sioux Falls plans to spend encouraging country folks to keep cow poop out of the river. It would also be a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the Corn Growers spend on TV ads to convince us that they are True Environmentalists™.
Senator Jason Frerichs (D-1/Wilmot) mentioned that Corn Growers’ marketing expenditure in Senate Ag and reminded us that those ads are his corn check-off dollars at work. Senator Frerichs said he wouldn’t mind putting some of his money (and ours) where the Corn Growers’ mouth is and encourage buffer strips with the SB 136 tax incentive.
Those check-off dollars could be another reason the Corn Growers would grouse about a program. If every bushel of corn harvested puts a penny in the Corn Growers’ ad budget, and if every acre can produce 148 bushels of corn (that’s the USDA’s reported average yield for South Dakota in 2014), then persuading farmers to take 4,240 acres out of corn and seeding it to grass deprives the Corn Growers of $6,280 in check-off money. Dang—that might cover a whole month of Matt McCaulley’s lobbying fees!
But with 787 million bushels of corn generating $7.87 million in corn check-off dollars, the Corn Growers surely won’t begrudge no more than an 0.08% ding to keep the Big Sioux River clean. Rep. Mark Mickelson (R-13/Sioux Falls) himself said in testimony for his pro-CAFO bill last week that the lack of grassy strips is one of the big reasons so much pollution flows through his town; surely Rep. Mickelson will join the unanimous wave of sentiment in favor of Senate Bill 136, a sensible, low-tech, and voluntary program to improve South Dakota’s water quality and wildlife.
Senate Bill 136 is on the House calendar for tomorrow, Monday, starting at 2 p.m. Central.