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Money for Nothing? The Problems with the Conservation Reserve Program

The Problems with the Conservation Reserve Program

by GEORGE WUERTHNER

There was a recent article in the New York Times (April 9, 2008) describing how many farmers, in light of rising grain prices, are hoping to cancel their contracts for the Conservation Reserve Program or CRP. Few people outside of the farm belt have heard of this program, but for 25 years, CRP has been the backbone of the government’s welfare system for farmers.

The program pays AG producers to take highly erosion-prone lands out of production and plant it to some kind of cover vegetation-usually grass. The program currently covers 36 million acres or about 8% of all cropland. Ostensibly CRP was created to prevent the loss of soil to wind and water. But over the years it became a vehicle for pumping billions of dollars into rural counties based on a host of other reasons-many of them illusionary, transitory, or ineffective at best, in particular the idea that CRP protected wildlife habitat.


HOW IT WORKS

Farmers elect to enroll in the program which pays a rental fee that averages about $50 an acre. Farmers typically sign 10 year contracts promising not to farm or even graze such lands. In 2007 the federal government paid $1.9 billion dollars to farmers and ranchers under this program. By comparison our entire National Wildlife Refuge System of 545 refuges which covers 98 million acres is scheduled to receive in 2008 a mere $398 million dollars.


PROBLEMS

There are many problems with the program that few people (besides myself) have been willing to discuss. For one the program pays farmers to do something they should be doing anyway-which is to avoid farming highly erodible lands. If our current air and water pollution laws were enforced and applied to Ag , such lands would be off limits to crop production. But since we ignore water pollution from Ag sources, and in some cases, legally permit non-source pollution from AG production, farmers/ranchers, unlike everyone else are allowed to degrade our air and water without penalty.

A second problem is the assumption that CRP protects wildlife habitat. I will address that below, but the benefits of this program are greatly exaggerated and inefficient compared to other methods for preserving wildlife habitat (such as outright fee purchase).

But the Achilles Heel in the program is its lack of permanence. Despite spending more than $36 billion over the life of this program, we gained no long term guarantee that these lands would remain unfarmed or subdivided. And as crop prices rise, more and more farmers are electing not to renew their contracts and/or attempting to cancel them, thus erasing any gains that may have occurred as a consequence of the program.

Over the 10 year life of a typical CRP contract, a farmer "earns" $500 an acre. In many states like Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and other plains states where the highest acres are enrolled, one can buy marginal farmland for less than we (taxpayers) are currently paying to rent it-and permanently withdraw it from all Ag production.


POPULAR IN CONGRESS

Despite its cost, the program was very popular in Congress. Representatives from farm states loved it because it was a good way to take money from urban dwellers and pass it on ranchers and farmers-about 400,000 individuals. In some farm/ranch regions such subsidies often amounted to half or more of the annual "income" from farming.

A friend of mine who works for the NRCS sarcastically refers to CRP as the "farmer retirement fund". In eastern Montana where he lives many farmers/ranchers enroll enough of their land in the program that they are able to just quit farming-at least farming the land-and to farm the US Treasury. While the average payment is not huge, milking the government is a lot less risky than planting crops, paying for the fertilizer, machinery, etc. that farming entails. For instance, 1000 acres at 50 dollars an acre equals $50,000 annually. At least some farmers/ranchers in his area have taken the money and run– either moved to town where they sit around the cafes drinking coffee and complaining about government waste or have moved to California or Arizona to await their annual CRP payments.

A second justification for the program is that removing lands from production would reduce overall crop output and thus increase the amount paid to remaining producers. In a sense, the CRP was a mechanism used to increase the price of grains, but outright purchase of these lands would have the same effect, and do so permanently, helping farmers who actually worked the land realize a better income for their effort.

CRP also won the support of some other government agencies since CRP was a "conservation" program not a direct "farm crop subsidy" thus helped the US governments meet international treaty agreements that limits farm subsidies.

PROBLEMS OF CRP FOR THE PUBLIC

Despite its popularity with farm state representatives, the program owes much of its widespread Congressional popularity to the strong support of CRP from environmental and sportsmen groups. The main rationale for environmental support was the presumed benefits of CRP to wildlife. Nevertheless, there are many reasons why CRP lands were of limited value to wildlife.

While there is no doubt that in some cases, removing these lands from Ag production and placing them in CRP did have some wildlife benefits, it’s still necessary to ask whether this is the most effective and efficient means of realizing such benefits. I think any rational analysis would conclude that the positive benefits are greatly exaggerated, and the costs are high.

First, there is no requirement to consider wildlife in lands chosen for enrollment under the program. Many farmers place marginal agricultural lands in the program, while they continued to farm the better lands. Thus it was/is quite common to have CRP parcels encircled by active croplands. These isolated parcels of land provide little good habitat for wildlife, indeed, even become population sinks. Predators have been shown to target the patches of grasslands amid plowed fields knowing there would be nesting birds and mammals hidden in the grass.

A second problem is that CRP has no requirements for planting native vegetation. Most farmers/ranchers plant exotic grasses as their cover crop providing far less value to wildlife than if native grasses were required.

Worse, in times of drought ranchers are often permitted to graze these lands removing cover and food for wildlife. During drought ungrazed grasslands are even more valuable to wildlife than in times of good precipitation so grazing them under these conditions has even greater consequences for wildlife than under "normal" conditions. Typically ranchers are not even required to pay back their CRP payments-even though they were getting to use the land for Ag production.

Finally, CRP does not provide any public access to these lands.


WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?

Instead of funding the CRP program Congress could fund outright land acquisition and/or at least conservation easements of eligible marginal Ag lands. In a sense, this is exactly what we did back in the 1930s when Congress bought out many farmers in the Dust Bowl years. These lands are now part of our National Grasslands system. It is time to expand our system of national grasslands and wildlife refuges on the plains by buying, instead of renting, marginal farmlands.

For the $36 billion dollars we have already spent on CRP, we could have purchased huge swaths of the farm belt, permanently removing these erodible lands from production. If we could redirect funding in the future towards acquisition of marginal Ag lands instead of rental, we would see huge benefits to water quality.

Outright purchase of land would also permanently remove these lands from crop production, increasing the economic prospects of all farmers remaining in business.

Third, outright purchase would permanently protect these lands as wildlife habitat, and under federal ownership, we could also restore native plant cover.

Finally, expansion of our national grasslands system would provide all Americans access to lands for camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, and nature study.

What is obvious now is that our investment of $36 billion in the CRP has produced marginal and more importantly, transitory benefits, and was an ineffective in the long run at protecting wildlife, soils, and water quality. I hope that next time Congress takes up CRP funding, they consider redirecting these moneys towards land purchase rather than land rental.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is an ecologist, writer and photographer with 34 published books, including Wild Fire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy and Montana, Magnificent Wilderness and, most recently, Thrillcraft: the Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation.