As prices rise, farmers, feds back off conservation program

2012-05-04T00:15:00Z 2012-05-04T17:32:23Z As prices rise, farmers, feds back off conservation programBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

It was springtime, and the rocky sod Justin Downs sought to bust turned to shale just beneath the surface. His backhoe bucked across the rocky slab. The Molt farmer made some adjustments and the blade trundled on.

“I took the backhoe to it, tried to put a scratch in it, but only went down four inches before hitting solid rock,” Downs said.

Two decades earlier his grandfather, frustrated with this earth, signed a 10-year contract with the U.S. government agreeing not to farm it in exchange for a check. Thousands of farmers did the same with their untillable and vulnerable land, conscripting it to the Conservation Reserve Program. Grain prices were low and the CRP assured at least some profit. By letting the land go to grass, the government also created wildlife habitat, and in some cases avoided problems like soil erosion into waterways.

Commodities prices are now sizzling. Farmers like Downs are taking land out of CRP and the program is being cut back from 39 million acres nationwide in 2008 to 25 million acres. The Senate version of the 2012 farm bill would give the program a $6 billion trim. That version passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee last week. Similar cuts are expected in the House version that is progressing more slowly.

“These acres have been in CRP since I was 12 and I’m 36 now,” Downs said. “Most of it is rocky ground that had been farmed for I don’t know how long, as long as my great-grandfather was out here farming in Molt. When it was put into CRP the price of wheat wasn’t that good. CRP made sense.”

The conservation program doesn’t make as much sense now, Downs said. Payments haven’t kept up with market prices. And with the national debt ballooning, there’s a sentiment among farmers that CRP might not be around at all if it weren’t for wildlife conservation, strongly supported by urban lawmakers whose votes are critical to getting a farm bill passed.

Wildlife groups, like Ducks Unlimited, are cautiously praising new conservation steps in the farm bill that favor habitat. But declining CRP acres are still a concern, particularly in areas like the Prairie Pothole Region, of Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa. Nicknamed the “duck factory,” the region produces half of North America’s waterfowl.

“DU remains very concerned about the accelerated loss of CRP acres across the Prairie Pothole Region and its impact to waterfowl populations and other wildlife. CRP also provides critical soil and water protection on these highly erodible lands,” said Eric Lindstrom, of Ducks Unlimited’s Great Plains Regional Office. “We’re continuing to work with landowners, partners and elected leaders to ensure there’s a strong CRP component in the next Farm Bill that’s not alone good for wildlife, but is also attractive to many landowners still interested in the program.”

Not all CRP acreage is prime wildlife habitat, or even workable cropland. Downs’ rototilled acres came out of CRP for a house and lawn for his young family, themselves a rare sight in a profession dominated by men in their late 50s and 60s with kids who years ago moved to town. Downs is pulling another rocky tract out to raise crops.

New farm practices and technology have made some of these rocky acres productive for the first time, Downs said.

Old-timers, such as Carl Mattson of Chester, see CRP’s shrinking influence as a good thing because it opens up acres for young farmers like Downs. Although the program was popular, many fault it for keeping a generation of farm children out of the profession essentially by locking up the land for 10 years at a time.

“One of the most horrible fallouts of the CRP program in the first place was the young guys it put out of business,” said Mattson, who farms and also works as the conservation and farm program associate for the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

Mattson testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee in March about the value of some federal conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program, which rewards farmers for farming in ways that protect soil, water and air but doesn’t prevent them from farming. Programs like CSP and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which helps farmers with conservation projects, survived the Senate version of the farm bill. The broader Conservation Reserve Program was trimmed and 23 conservation programs were reduced to 13.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he advocated for “working programs” like the ones Mattson testified about because that’s what Montana farmers support.

“The No. 1 thing I heard over and over again is that Montana producers want a greater emphasis on working lands programs, so they can take advantage of conservation tools while continuing to ranch and farm and the same time,” Baucus said.

The cuts to other conservation programs were expected. The 25-million-acre conservation limit in the Senate version of the 2012 farm bill doesn’t have to be reached until 2017, the final year for the bill’s policies. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that farmers lured from the program by strong commodities prices will opt not to renew contracts on 6 million acres of CRP land this fall as they expire.

If the USDA estimate proves true, CRP acres would be down to 25 million acres by October. New acres will continue to be enrolled, but the trend is downward.

In Montana, over the past four years, CRP acres have decreased roughly 789,000 acres, with just over 2.5 million acres remaining, according to Dick Deschamps, acting state executive director of the Montana Farm Service Agency. But the number of acres coming out has accelerated every year from just under 90,000 in 2009 to 350,000 in fall 2011.

When Downs and Mattson talk about CRP declines, they talk about the growing global demand for food and the often-cited statistic that world food production will need to double by 2050 to meet growing demand.

But there’s still some trepidation about leaving a program that for many years provided an income when woefully low crop prices wouldn’t. An entire generation of retired farmers now use CRP for retirement income and won’t again work the land.

Once land comes out of CRP, there’s no turning back.

“It’s a jump out of the boat and farming is changing. It’s so much more global,” Downs said. “We woke up in the morning in ‘85 or ‘88 and maybe we heard about the rain in Texas or Kansas and prices moved up or down. Now we wake up and find out Brazil had a frost, or Australia has grasshoppers and prices move.

“I think the people that take acreage out are going to be the younger generation like me that are optimistic about the future.”

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