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Updated 11:50 AM October 25, 2007




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Rising energy prices affecting the Great Plains

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 U-M and Colorado State University, 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 offer both challenges and opportunities for the future of this region.

Published in the October issue of BioScience, the study examines whether it is possible in the long term to maintain agriculturally oriented 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," says William Parton, senior research scientist at Colorado State's Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory and lead author of the study.

The study shows 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," says Myron Gutmann, a historian and director of the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research at the Institute for Social Research. "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, the price increases of the last 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.

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