GRAND FORKS, N.D. — An old joke, more popular in urban than in rural areas, explains why farmers tend to wear seed caps with the bills pushed up off their foreheads.
It’s because, the joke goes, farmers are always bending to peer deeply into their mailboxes, looking for those government checks they get for not farming.
There may be fewer checks in the years ahead, and that’s of some concern not only to farmers but also to environmentalists, wildlife advocates, consumers and others.
Since it was created as part of the 1985 Farm Bill, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has provided payments to farmers to take marginal land, especially land most susceptible to erosion, out of production.
The program compensates owners for what they might earn through farming the land or leasing it to other farmers, and it splits the costs of putting up a vegetative cover, aiming to reduce erosion and the buildup of sediments in rivers and streams, improve water quality and provide habitat for wildlife.
At its peak, CRP enrolled nearly 40 million acres. But more than 3.4 million acres came out of the program in September as contracts expired, mostly in the Great Plains states. Contracts will continue to expire over the next few years as CRP total acreage falls to within the cap of 32 million acres set in the 2008 Farm Bill.
‘A short-term gain for a long-term loss’
USDA has floated the possibility of lowering the cap to 24 million acres, perhaps in the 2012 Farm Bill.
The program cost U.S. taxpayers about $2 billion in fiscal 2008.
Cutting it provides “a short-term gain for a long-term loss,” said Brian Winter, a program director for The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota.
“We all know money is tight, and we have a deficit problem,” he said. “But it baffles me why we’d reduce a program as beneficial as this one, with all the good it does.”
“It’s really all about the money,” agreed Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union.
“But I don’t see them taking the cap down further,” he said. “I don’t see the votes in Congress for that,” in part because of “a growing movement toward green technology” and practices in U.S. agriculture.
Without the government money coming in, landowners may feel compelled to put those acres back into production, even as wheat and other commodity prices fall, because they have property taxes and other expenses to cover.
Initial push came in mid-1980s
Much of the initial push for CRP was as an economic lifeline to farmers struggling through the agricultural crisis of the mid-1980s. But a continuing criticism has been aimed at its impact on already declining numbers of farms and small rural towns, the withering of a rural society. Many farmers idled as much of their land as they could, sold or rented the rest, took the CRP checks and retired. If they retired to Fargo or Phoenix, they weren’t around to support local implement dealerships, banks, grain elevators, cafes, schools, service clubs and churches.
Returning millions of acres to crop production isn’t likely to reverse that rural decline, since many of those acres will be added to huge farm operations taking advantage of the efficiencies of size. Growers today “can farm vast tracts with modern equipment, seamlessly absorbing new acres into existing operations,” the AP reported last week.
But some groups, such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, note that a provision of the 2008 Farm Bill offers landowners an additional two years of CRP rental payments if they sell or lease the previously idle land to beginning farmers who promise to work it sustainably.
“With the likelihood that millions of acres of land covered by expiring CRP contracts will return to production in the next few years,” the coalition states, “this option offers an important opportunity for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers to get a start on the land while also increasing the likelihood that the ecological integrity of the land will be protected.”
The Farmers Union’s Peterson notes that the average age of active Minnesota farmers is 59, and the number of U.S. farmers in their 70s grew by 20 percent in just the past few years.
‘Gray-hairs can’t get out and young people can’t get in’
“Farming has become so highly capital intensive that the gray-hairs can’t get out and young people can’t get in,” he said. “So this (sustainable agriculture) option is another way to bring young people into farming.”
Peterson, who has a farm south of Madison, Minn., has 15 acres in CRP, including a hillside not amenable to fieldwork that he has planted to wildflowers.
A big reduction in CRP acreage could have an impact on land, commodity and consumer food prices, he said.
“Anytime you take 10 percent out (of production) or put 10 percent in, you’re going to affect prices,” he said. “More land in production is going to send signals to the markets.”
As of September, Minnesota had 1.7 million acres enrolled in the CRP program. North Dakota, with more marginal cropland west of the Red River Valley, had nearly 2.9 million acres in CRP, fourth most (after Texas, Montana and Kansas) in the nation.
In 2009, 33,052 Minnesota farms paid
USDA’s Farm Services Agency provides a state-by-state breakdown, [PDF] which shows that 1,696,571 acres on 33,052 farms in Minnesota received CRP rental payments of $109 million this year.
Payments in surrounding states included nearly $35 million in Wisconsin, nearly $198 million in Iowa, more than $97 million in North Dakota and more than $57 million in South Dakota.
The federal payments replacing cash rents or farm income vary, depending on soil quality and other factors. CRP rentals averaged $34.33 an acre in North Dakota this year, compared with an average of $64.52 an acre in Minnesota and $116.60 in Iowa.
Wildlife groups and outdoors interests praise the CRP program.
“At one point, CRP covered 3.4 million acres in North Dakota, about 2 million of that in the Missouri Coteau region,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel outdoors editor Paul Smith wrote recently after a successful hunt on the coteau north and east of Bismarck.
“Though CRP has dwindled in recent years and its future is in doubt,” Smith wrote, “it is credited with significant improvements in pheasant and waterfowl numbers in the U.S. over the last quarter century.”
The Minot (N.D.) Daily News recently made the same point.
Cited as a major reason for pheasant, deer increases
“Biologists say that CRP land has been one of the major reasons for an increase in pheasants and deer in North Dakota. Lose the CRP, they say, and game populations will decline. The landowner must choose between CRP and planting crops. The final choice often comes down to a fiscal decision.”
Adds Greg Gullickson, an outreach biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department: “You can’t blame the landowner for wanting to put it back into cropland. It actually makes sense if you are looking just at the bottom line.”
Wildlife groups are especially concerned about the possibility of an even lower cap on CRP acreage in the 2012 Farm Bill. The Nature Conservancy has urged that the 32 million acre cap be seen as temporary and returned soon to 37 million acres. Pheasants Forever has urged the expansion of other conservation programs, such as Minnesota’s State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), so farmers could slide acres from CRP into those other programs.
“To lose that kind of habitat on the landscape would be sad,” The Nature Conservancy’s Winter said. “What CRP clearly does is take out highly erodible land, often near streams and ponds, and give it more value by providing tremendous habitat, for example, for grassland birds.
“It has been nothing but good for the greater prairie chicken,” he said. “Five years ago, Minnesota was able to open a greater prairie chicken season. It had been closed for more than 50 years. Stories like that can be repeated state by state across the country.
“I hunt with my two sons and my short-hair dogs, and I couldn’t begin to count the ducks I’ve shot out of ponds on CRP land.”
Chuck Haga reports on issues in Greater Minnesota and the Dakotas.