Conservation Reserve Program Predictions

Paul J. Baicich

Birding Community E-bulletins

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) of the Farm Bill has a long history of financial incentives to encourage farmers to idle their croplands and plant vegetative cover. This is something which in turn benefits the environment and also provides commodity price-support by reducing surplus production.

But corn policy makes that curbing of production ineffective. The economic incentive to grow corn, even on marginal lands, far exceeds the average amount of $57 paid per acre through CRP. Quite frankly, CRP simply can’t compete.

Farmers are once again planting fencerow-to-fencerow fields to cash in on high commodity prices. Nationwide, about 27 million acres are enrolled in CRP, a reduction of 9.7 million acres in about five years. At the same time, CRP support in Congress is fading.

That’s the situation as the first general CRP sign-up in a year began on 20 May (to close on 14 June).

The loss of CRP acreage underscores shrinking wildlife habitat, habitat especially crucial for grassland birds that are under severe duress. “The long-term trends are very, very sobering,” said Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasant Forever. To cite one particularly disturbing example, he said, “We’re turning the eastern Dakotas into northern Iowa every day. I’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime.”

One unanswered question is whether CRP will pay enough to entice landowners to enroll in the program at all. One recent report suggested that this year’s corn harvest could be 30 percent above last year’s, a situation which might drive corn prices down sharply, prompting some landowners to enroll in CRP.

In any case, there has been little discussion over the impacts on the loss of so much land, water protection, and bird-and-wildlife habitat.

So far, the current Farm Bill versions in the Senate and House call for a capping of CRP at 24 million to 25 million acres. This is a far cry from the almost 38 million acres enrolled five or six years ago.

One positive sign is that last month a Senate committee approved a new five-year Farm Bill which would include a requirement that farmers who buy crop insurance also comply with conservation measures to protect highly erodible lands and sensitive wetlands. But this isn’t new; the policy was in place before 1996, highlighting the difficulties in promoting land, water, and bird conservation these days.

We will keep you informed as these CRP bird-conservation issues unfold.

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