Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Conserved Farmland Safe for Now

Earlier this month, there was some talk that the USDA might lift penalties for farmers taking land out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP subsidizes farm owners who leave portions of their land fallow to serve as wildlife habitat. This conserved habitat provides breeding ground for waterfowl and many other bird species. Many business interests put pressure on the government to lift penalties in the wake of the flooding earlier this year. That, food crises elsewhere in the world, and ethanol mandates raised the price of grain. Instead, the USDA just announced that it would not lift penalties because the crop forecasts had improved.

The ruling was a major victory for conservationists and hunting groups, who had argued that lifting the penalties would have gutted the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers not to cultivate marginal land. Currently, 34.7 million acres are enrolled in the program, much of it in the Great Plains.

Under the terms of the program, farmers sign contracts for up to a decade or more. Farmers who terminate the contract must reimburse the government, with interest and a 25 percent penalty on the total rent payments they received.

“The Conservation Reserve Program is the holy grail of conservation, and we are pleased that the U.S.D.A. will maintain the program and the benefits that it has had,” said Barton James, director of agriculture conservation policy for Ducks Unlimited, an advocacy group.
If demand for ethanol continues to increase in coming years, the issue of the CRP lands is going to keep coming back. Even in the face of today's ruling, so far 288,726 acres have been removed from the program this year. Another 1.1 million acres will need to be renewed in September, which would give many farmers to remove land from the program without penalty. This trend bears watching. It may be time for the government to rethink its renewable energy strategy.