Nothing is as permanent as change, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is finding that to be the case where its tried and true Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is concerned.
The new sign-up for CRP ended April 6 and it faces a differing focus from the program initiated by the Reagan Administration some 25 years ago, and all programs before it. That early program was designed to have a goal of reducing crop production in favor of conserving land.
The new CRP, reported John Walter of Agriculture Online, provides less remuneration and is targeted to environmental goals of the administration. And, he pointed out, “it co-exists with a farm economy stretching to increase production.” Indeed.
Farmers will definitely be caught between the noble goals of CRP and the pressures of the marketplace — which seems to mean expansion of land in production to meet demand, both domestically and for exports of corn. CRP rental rates will not change from the last program, reflecting, Walter said, “the fact that USDA is dealing with new political and marketplace realities.”
According to the USDA, highlights of the CRP’s success in past years include:
• CRP has restored more than two million acres of wetlands and two million acres of riparian buffers;
• Each year, CRP keeps more than 600 million pounds of nitrogen and more than 100 million pounds of phosphorous from flowing into the nation’s streams, rivers and lakes;
• CRP has provided $1.8 billion annually to landowners — dollars that make their way into local economies, supporting small businesses and creating jobs; and
• CRP is the largest private lands carbon sequestration program in the country. Putting land into conservation sequesters carbon plants and soil, and reduces both fuel and fertilizer usage.
Meanwhile, Walter pointed out in his article that contracts on about 6.5 million acres in CRP will expire Sept. 30 of this year. “A good percentage,” he noted, “are likely destined to return to cropland.” That’s a noble commercial push, but certainly erodes the lofty goals of original CRP.
According to Walter, Ray Grabanbski, marketing analyst and president of Progressive Ag, has stated: “It’s likely a significant amount of acreage will be taken out. I would guess that only half of the land will be back in CRP after the new signup.” Grabanbski said he believes enough land will go out of CRP next fall “that it will pressure commodity prices in 2013 and beyond.”
The USDA seems to agree. Dan Steinkruger, executive director of the Nebraska Farm Service Agency, told Agriculture.com, “Realistically, we are expecting that to happen. It’s a political reality, too, that we’ll be dealing with a smaller CRP in the future.”
In 2011, USDA enrolled a record number of acres in conservation, working with more than 500,000 farmers and ranchers to implement conservation practices that help clean up our air, filter our drinking water, and prevent, as programs have tried to do since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, erosion of the vulnerable lands.
While we all applaud the fabulous commercial success for production agriculture in an otherwise desultory economy, it would be a darned shame if we again damage vulnerable lands to achieve it.
I’ll see ya.
An Iowa native, Peter Graham has been a rural newspaper editor for more than 40 years. He currently edits a twice-weekly paper in Western Iowa. You can contact him at (712) 642-2791 or news@missourivalley times.com