Although heralded as USDA's most successful conservation program in history, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) endures scrutiny every time a new farm bill pops up, commodity prices jump or any one of a number of other targets moves.

Conservation is important enough to policy makers to make it part of the title of the newest farm bill — Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 — but what to do with current and soon-to-expire acres in CRP remains in flux for some.

When grain prices shot up a few years ago, row-crop producers plotted to plant more acres for profit and ethanol incentives while livestock producers struggled with feed budgets. These competing demands for not just corn, but also soybeans, hit at the same time as higher energy costs. All this led Congress to consider allowing haying and grazing on CRP land, and lifting the penalty for producers to convert their CRP acres to cropland production before contract expiration.

“There's a lot of volatility in commodity markets, and though we're still historically on the high side of prices relative to our own supply and demand fundamentals, taking a penalty for early out is a tough decision to make,” says Pete Riley, agricultural economist with USDA's Farm Service Agency. “Should you take land out of a 10-15-year contract because you might get a one- or two-year price spike? It depends on what your gambling urge is.”

Then Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer ended up rejecting the penalty-free early release of land enrolled in CRP, but some may still be considering it if they're in the middle of their contracts.

“Current corn prices make it tempting to take it out,” says Ed Beaupre, who is entering year 10 of his 15-year CRP contracts on several pieces of land in Iroquois County, IL. “But we all know there's no guarantee prices will stay at this level. And the environmental and wildlife population benefits and steady paycheck outweigh that chance.”

BEAUPRE ISN'T SURE what he'll do when his contracts expire at the end of 2015. “I'll be turning 78 the month they expire. I would like to re-enroll the acres if the price makes sense. I'd also look at cash renting for income — farmers don't have 401Ks, that land is our retirement fund.”

Thad Eshleman, the county resource conservationist whom Beaupre works with, says he may not have a choice. The 2008 Farm Bill capped the acreage potential of CRP at 32 million, down from its previous cap of 39.2 million. (October 2009 reports show there were approximately 31 million acres enrolled.) And while that cap does take care of some of the issues brought up a few years ago, it also brings with it some challenges.

“With the new cap, some of our wind erodability index levels aren't quite high enough to get whole-field acres back into the general sign-up, or bid-in program, once they've expired. New eligibility requirements place an emphasis on the environmental benefits a piece of land will bring,” explains Eshleman, who helps manage the county's more than 1,500 active CRP contracts. “We hunt for other options and encourage farmers to consider continuous sign-up efforts like filter strips, field wind breaks and grass waterways or other programs like the new SAFE (State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement).”

THE CRP WAS established to protect highly erodible land by taking it out of production to reduce soil erosion. It also helped stabilize grain and land prices in the mid-1980s recession. But its benefits have expanded to include wildlife habitat, water and air quality and more. Many of the original 10-15-year CRP contracts have or will expire in the next few years, leaving producers with the decision of what to do next.

“As important and understandable as some of the reasons are to take land out of CRP, it's a tool that we don't want to see wear away,” says Jon Scholl, president of American Farmland Trust, a long-time organization focused on protecting farmland from urban development and promoting responsible land use. “The environmental benefits of the program are significant, but there have always been budget concerns, as well. We're trying to strike that balance among how much it will cost, the demand for production levels and the impact on the environment.”

It's a balancing act, agrees USDA's Riley. “As more pressure is put on farmers to produce, we look for ways to logically balance that with the need to maintain conservation habits,” he says.

One way is to offer another general sign-up this summer to help offset the nearly 4.5 million acres of CRP that will expire in September 2010.

“A general sign-up is definitely on the table,” says Riley. “If no expired acres are re-enrolled, we'll be down to fewer than 27 million acres, more than 5 million acres short of the potential cap.”

The concern is that if policy makers believe that 27 million acres is the right level, they may decide not to put a general sign-up into effect and just let it be.

“CRP is a valuable tool that allows producers to do the right thing for the environment and the right thing for the economic health of their operations,” adds Scholl. “As time goes on, we discover more benefits and more public support of not only CRP, but other conservation programs, as well.”

There are more opportunities than ever to be more targeted and refined in conservation efforts. SAFE, as mentioned, is a new continuous CRP practice that offers cost-share assistance to establish habitat beneficial to high-priority wildlife species on eligible land. EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives program) offers one-time financial assistance to implement conservation practices such as forest improvement. The 2008 Farm Bill also expanded the Wetlands Reserve and Grasslands Reserve programs.

“We're supportive of proposed legislation such as cap and trade, where producers may receive economic incentives to reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases through conservation practices,” says Scholl. “We're investing a lot of effort to ensure agriculture is engaged in these discussions and that we are part of the solution, so programs not only benefit the environment, but also the agriculture industry. We want to help farmers be the stewards they strive to be.”

CRP BENEFITS

A 1990 USDA economic assessment of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) quantified environmental benefits at $6-13.6 billion, which included assigning values to surface water quality, wildlife habitat, soil productivity and wind erosion abatement.

Perhaps more telling is the qualitative benefits outlined in the CRP 2008 annual summary report, prepared by the USDA Farm Service Agency:

  • 221 million tons sediment reduced
  • 615 million pounds less nitrogen lost
  • 445 million tons of soil saved
  • 48 million metric tons of carbon sequestered — more than any other federal program
  • 22% increase in Midwest pheasant counts
  • 30% increase in northern prairie duck population

“Older generations talk about the good old days of the soil bank era, but today's sportsmen talk about the wildlife legacy of CRP,” says Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever, who has been bird-dogging conservation programs through several farm bills in his 17 years with the organization.

The program has created millions of acres of habitat for wildlife such as pheasant and quail. It also helps bring in millions of dollars' worth of hunting revenue to rural areas.

Nomsen also believes that water quality is one of the single biggest benefits of CRP.

“Unfortunately with the new cap on acres, there will be farmers unable to re-enroll land in CRP,” Nomsen says. “Options such as filter strips and grass waterways will still allow them to hang on to many of the benefits of the program. We need more long-term conservation, not less.”