Three years ago, Congress voted as part of the 2014 farm law to wind down the Conservation Reserve Program to a maximum of 24 million acres, its smallest size since 1988. Enrollment in the long-term land-idling program was down by 30 percent from its 2007 peak as farmers chased profits in the commodity boom, so the cap was a painless step that incidentally helped lawmakers meet their target for budget savings.
Land retirement is on the table again as Congress prepares for the new farm bill. This time, the argument is whether to divert U.S. cropland from production in the face of large grain inventories worldwide. The lead Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, says the CRP ceiling ought to be raised to as high as 40 million acres. The larger CRP would bolster crop prices as well as improve water quality, he says, and “address the declining wildlife populations we’ve experienced in my region.” Pheasants Forever says “a robust CRP of 40 million acres is both needed and sought” as a benefit to habitat for game birds and economic support to rural communities.
Senator John Thune, Republican from South Dakota, is backing what some call a “CRP lite” approach aimed equally at soil health and helping farm income. Farmers could idle marginal land for three to five years with a USDA payment set at half the local CRP rental rate. They also would get a larger premium subsidy on crop insurance.
A few weeks ago, National Farmers Union delegates endorsed a similar approach for its policy book, saying, “We support a flexible short-term land-idling program that compensates farmers for reduction in acres for crop production.”
“It’s an approach we haven’t had in a while,” says Ferd Hoefner of National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in comparing Thune’s bill to the annual set-asides that were part of the farm program until the 1996 Freedom to Farm law. A short-term land retirement would provide more flexibility to meet demand for food than a 10-year CRP contract while providing some conservation benefits, says Hoefner. “Definitely, we are taking a very close look at it and are likely to be favorable.”
It’s not clear sailing for either of the land retirement ideas, however. They have few backers among lawmakers in the early days of farm bill discussion. The top issue, so far, is getting more money for crop and dairy supports. There is formidable opposition.
“We support keeping CRP at 24 million acres,” says Mary Kay Thatcher of the Farm Bureau. The largest U.S. farm group says conservation funding ought to go to working lands programs, such as the cost-sharing Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. It’s reviewing the Thune plan.
At a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the USA Rice Federation said EQIP and CSP are the workhorses of USDA’s conservation programs. The National Association of Conservation Districts, in calling for larger funding for soil and water conservation, urged a commitment to working lands.
Some analysts say land retirement would be the wrong answer to large supplies – a U.S. pullback might encourage farmers to expand production overseas.
Record-setting world grain harvests this decade have been accompanied by vast increases in consumption, says Sal Gilbertie, owner of Teucrium Trading, citing record soybean imports by China and record U.S. production of corn ethanol. “Global production levels for the coming year need to stay high to meet seemingly insatiable global demand.”
USDA also runs stewardship programs on working lands. Some 220 groups wrote to House and Senate Appropriations Committee leaders this week, asking them to protect funding for those programs. They said those programs protect farmland while assuring crop production.
This story was first published in the April 2017 issue of Successful Farming Magazine. It was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network.