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BY CHRIS MADSON
Anybody who has hunted pheasants— or sharptails, Huns, prairie ducks, and whitetails in the upper Midwest — knows the importance of farm bill programs for wildlife in farm country. During the past 30 years, the conservation title of the farm bill has provided the lion’s share of habitat in the corn and wheat belts, and the most important part of the conservation title has always been the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). It’s an important program that protects cropland and also, as a fringe benefit, creates cover for wildlife and it’s at risk from rising commodity prices and the current political climate.
CRP’s primary purpose is to protect highly erodible cropland, a goal it achieves by paying farmers to establish a mix of grass and broad-leafed plants on fields that are susceptible to the effects of wind or water. The contracts that establish these plantings typically last 10 years or more, and they have the pleasant side effect of providing millions of acres of permanent cover on some of the world’s most intensively farmed landscapes.
As I write this, Congress is wrangling over the details of the new farm bill. The national target for CRP acreage will probably be reduced by 10 million acres or more, which is bad news for anyone who cares about wildlife, but in the current political climate, it’s probably as much as we can expect. Unfortunately, there are other pressures on CRP that bring into question whether we can reach even the modest targets Congress may finally adopt.
As much as I would like to believe that the typical American farmer’s first concern is the long-term health of his land, I’m afraid most of his decisions are driven by the price of grain. An acre of good corn ground yields 185 bushels of corn or more, depending on the year. At $7 a bushel, that’s nearly $1,300 an acre— meanwhile, CRP payments in corn country are running about $140 per acre, give or take.
Not too surprisingly, the difference between these two numbers has been driving a lot of land management decisions. Recently, I took a look at the Farm Service Administration’s CRP statistics for the states that I consider to constitute the core of pheasant range: Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. Between 2007 and 2013, the CRP acreage in those states dropped from 11.5 million acres to 5.4 million acres, a 52 percent decline. Corn price jumped from a little more than $2 a bushel to above $7 a bushel in that same period. Wheat price rose from about $4 a bushel to between $7 and $10 a bushel.
Almost 60 percent of the CRP contracts that expired in that region between 2006 and 2012 were not renewed. Another 945,000 acres in those states came out of CRP in the last year.
Explanations for the rise in commodity prices vary. It’s generally thought that part of the reason wheat prices went up was because farmers were planting more corn, which is bringing in premium prices. Fewer acres in wheat means less production and upward drift in price.
Ethanol production is credited for driving up corn prices— some economists think it’s played a large role, increasing prices up to $2.35 a bush; others think the effect is smaller.
Some of the rise in corn was probably due to commodity speculation during the financial panic. Some was due to the ongoing increase in oil prices, which affects the cost of fertilizer and diesel for tractors and also drives changes in production and price of ethanol. Little, if any, of the rise was due to increased grain exports, particularly to the Far East.
Prices of farm commodities like corn, wheat, and soybeans have slipped from the broad highs they reached a year ago, but given the realities of politics and market forces that are still in play, it’s doubtful that they will continue to drop. If CRP has any hope of competing with production of grain and beans, rental payments will have to rise substantially.
The benefits of CRP are undeniable. Since 1985, the program has saved trillions of tons of topsoil that would otherwise be on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. In a world with 9 billion hungry people, it’s likely that the productivity of American soil will be the nation’s most precious commodity, outstripping oil, natural gas, and minerals as even the wealthiest among us begin to realize that food and water are products we simply can’t do without.
Seen in that light, CRP is worth nearly anything we have to pay to keep it. And if that CRP produces a few extra mallards and pheasants— well, my Brittany and I won’t object. ♦
— Chris Madson has spent much of his career covering conservation issues and wildlife management from the Rocky Mountains to corn country from his home in Cheyenne, Wyo.