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Published November 25, 2013, 09:51 AM

Money, money

CRP is more complex than the ethanol issue.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. It is intriguing to witness the debates raging in the world regarding ethanol and the Conservation Reserve Program.

The way I remember it, CRP started out as a technique to protect soil from blowing or running away, yes, but — significantly — it allowed debt-strapped farmers to run away from the farm credit crisis of the 1980s.

It was part of the 1985 farm bill — initially limited to highly eroded land. This quickly changed to include nonerosive land when farmers wanted larger parcels in it. Money. (Remember, this was the time of the famous 1983 Coleman v. Block due process case, and the 1987 Farm Credit Act that allowed write-offs if the farm foreclosures were more expensive.) Money.

Grain elevator operators hated CRP. Some lost 25 percent of their productive land. Deer and bird hunters — upland birds and waterfowl — loved it.

Eventually, farming changed, and so did CRP.

Farmers found zero- and minimum-tillage options with the advent of air seeding technology and Roundup (glyphosate). CRP protected the ground, yes, but farming was getting better at that. Eventually, the political support for the program shifted to more wildlife habitat goals, because that’s who was paying the freight for the political support.

Local Farm Service Agency committees were tasked, among other things, with making sure the government didn’t pay landowners any more than the depressed crop or pasture rental rates. This wasn’t a welfare program, after all.

When things got dry in the late 1980s, landowners with CRP contracts were allowed limited harvesting of CRP acres, a practice repeated through the years. Landowners needed the money. Sportsmen then could outbid the grain markets, for awhile.

As farmland in North Dakota and the Northern Plains became increasingly wet, landowners urged their increasingly senior and powerful congressional delegations to push for more wetlands in the program. Increasingly, well-heeled hunters from urban areas would buy former farm and ranch land and idle it. They’d get cost-share payments for the love of wildlife and for their own enjoyment.

One thing that some conservation and wildlife enthusiasts hated about CRP was that it was temporary — a 10-year idling contract. Some preferred the longer-term “permanent” wildlife “easements,” such as what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had acquired with one-time payments in the troubled 1980s.

Farmers and landowner groups, on the other hand, strongly resisted a permanent CRP. They hated the easements that forever limited drainage and the enforcement by agents who sometimes carry guns.

Wise farmers knew the money equation could change — and it did.

I (as an avid bird hunter) had to smile when I saw the recent national news package that described the millions of acres of land that have been “taken out of conservation” because of ethanol. The casual reader doesn’t see that this conservation land is private land and the government had a temporary lease. The story could have just as accurately been that the land had been “returned to production.”

And why are we producing all of this grain?

Because of ethanol?

Sure, ethanol has had an impact (though the feed byproducts aren’t counted). But the rest of the reasons include: better corn genetics, relatively poorer improvements in competing wheat and small grains crops, higher rainfall in the Northern Plains, easier farming with glyphosate and climate change.

With ethanol in the mix (Are we going to idle the plants?) farmers and landowners hope to profit — money — from the challenge of feeding 9 billion mouths that are richer because they’re making stuff that Americans want to buy — regardless of whether we’re farmers, hunters or environmentalists.