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Published September 28, 2010, 09:30 AM

Reduction in CRP acres could change the Kansas environment

TOPEKA, Kan. — A U.S. Department of Agriculture program that has benefited farmers, urban dwellers and wildlife for decades is undergoing some changes that could have a detrimental affect on the Kansas environment.

TOPEKA, Kan. — A U.S. Department of Agriculture program that has benefited farmers, urban dwellers and wildlife for decades is undergoing some changes that could have a detrimental affect on the Kansas environment.

The successful Conservation Reserve Program, which allowed farmers to take their most environmentally fragile land out of production in exchange for rental payments from the federal government, has been reduced to a maximum of 32 million acres from 39 million acres. Kansas landowners have about 3.5 million acres enrolled in the program, but as many as 1.1 million of those acres could be left out when existing CRP contracts expire between now and September 2011.

It’s unfortunate that a program that has served its designated purpose for so long and so well must be subjected to a budget cut. Congress in 2008 cut CRP funding by 20 percent — but the change appears inevitable at this point.

Finding a replacement

The best that can be hoped for is that Kansas’ losses are much less than 1.1 million acres and that landowners who must decide what to do with former CRP ground are diligent in looking for ways to replace the rental payments without turning under improvements that have protected the land from the ravages of wind and water erosion for so long.

Landowners who enrolled some of their property in the program were allowed to plant grasses and trees to control erosion, improve water quality and provide wildlife habitat. The one hard and fast rule initially was that the vegetation, grasses or trees could not be harvested during the contract period, although that rule has been suspended in some areas when periods of drought caused severe shortages of hay.

Absent the federal rental payments, however, farmers whose CRP contracts aren’t renewed will be looking to replace the revenue generated by those acres. Some of the land may be suitable for crop farming, but the general consensus is that much of it would be suceptible to wind or water erosion, or both, if cleared of the protective vegetation.

Water issue

Water experts say the potential loss of grass, which filters contaminants, could hurt the state’s ongoing efforts to improve water quality.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he, too, is concerned about water quality and wants to replace 4.5 million acres to be pushed out of CRP with land that, if managed properly, could reduce farm runoff into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. He didn’t say just how close to those two rivers he wants the 4.5 million acres, but from where we sit, his definition would cover land along most of the draws, creeks and rivers between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.

While some of the land Vilsack is looking for might be found in Kansas, the net effect on the state most likely will be a loss of CRP acres. Whether those acres will be devoted to row crops, hay or grazing will be decided by those who farm them and have proven to be good stewards of the land.

We trust they’re up for another challenge.

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