The conservation program also benefits the creation of wildlife habitat by the increase in planting of grasses, trees, wildflowers and other vegetation, says Marne Tichenell, an OSU Extension wildlife specialist.

"Landowners who plant grasslands gain benefit from increased wildlife viewing which has become big recreation in Ohio these days," she says. "Tree plantings and native warm-season grass plantings, such as Indian grass, big bluestem and switchgrass, are excellent habitat for a variety of different species.

"Wildlife habitats also are good for hunting a variety of game species in Ohio, such as turkey, quail and white-tailed deer."

Non-financial considerations are also often important for farmers and landowners when deciding to enroll in CRP, says Carl Zulauf, an agricultural economics professor and a researcher with OARDC.

These considerations include whether to take on the task of finding and negotiating with a farmer on rental terms as well as the environmental benefits achieved by being in the program, he said.

In the general sign-up that occurred March 14 through April 15 last year, 2.2 million acres of the 4.4 million acres with an expiring CRP contract did not re-enroll. However, after taking into account newly enrolled land, acres in CRP declined in net by 1.5 million acres. Thus, despite the high prices that existed in 2011, acres in CRP declined by around one-third of the expiring contract amount, Zulauf says.

"A broader policy question exists," he says. "What is the tradeoff between environmental advantages from CRP versus additional supply of commodities from farming land in CRP? Additional supply could benefit consumers, especially the poor, through lower food prices, so the question becomes how many acres should the U.S. withdraw from production to put in CRP?"

This question will likely be an issue in the 2012 Farm Bill debate, especially if commodity prices remain high, Zulauf says.

Sohngen says the question of how much land to keep in CRP is cyclical and that the amount of land coming out of conservation programs has been on a downward trend in recent years.

"But if we refocused our efforts on CRP to get the right land enrolled in the program, we could do just as good a job of conservation with fewer acres," he says.