The number of acres the government idles for conservation is contracting, and that's caused as much by market forces — or "nature," as one agriculture advocate put it — as it is by anything Congress has done or plans to do.
Whether or not the House and Senate can get into conference over their farm bills — both of which cut back conservation lands — the market's appetites for more crops are beckoning farmers to abandon the Conservation Reserve Program and place idled lands back in production.
The program, a key part of Title II of the farm bill, was established in 1985 as an incentive for farmers to rent marginally productive land to the government. The farmers would collect a rental fee, and the government could help preserve the environment and create wildlife habitat.
Farmers face a competitive bidding process to enter the program, which is administered by the Agriculture Department, and environmental advocates say the program has been generally regarded as successful. In the mid-1990s, the program saw its peak, with nearly 37 million acres enrolled — roughly the area of Illinois. In July of this year, about 26.9 million acres were enrolled, according to USDA.
But while environmental groups want to see the program strengthened, industry generally wants to see more land brought into production. Spurred by an increase in commodity prices that began in 2006, many farmers want to take land out of the program and put it back in use, said Keith Collins, the former chief economist at the Agriculture Department.
"When prices double, there's money to be made by a lot farmers by farming," Collins said.
As for government, lawmakers must strike a balance in an atmosphere that involves stark trade-offs. Cutting the number of acres in the program can accommodate rising market demand for crops, but it does so at the expense of conservation. The House Agriculture Committee's version of the farm bill would cut the number of authorized acres in the program from 32 million to 24 million.
"We have a lot of stomachs we need to feed — not just nationally," said Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., the Conservation, Energy, and Forestry Subcommittee chairman. "I also think it's a right size to be able to focus where this investment is most effectively purposed."
Collins framed it this way: "In a period of time when there's a big demand on the land base to produce crops for energy — to produce crops for what's going to be 9 billion people by 2050 — you might want to allow that land to be in production. But there's also a lot of land that probably shouldn't be in production. So determining the optimal size of what the conservation reserve program should be and what kind of land should go in it is a really difficult policy choice."
Some argue that paring back the number of acres in the program makes sense. The thinking goes like this: With commodity prices up and farmers putting their land back into production, Congress faces an opportunity to cut a program that in some ways was already shrinking. "The benefit for doing it in statute is that they get credit for those savings, which they wouldn't get if they let nature take its course," said Ferd Hoefner, the policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
But others say that there should be a more stable way to preserve land. The "fatal flaw" with the program, says Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group, is that farmers merely rent their land to the government. Many would like to see an option for a permanent transfer — or perhaps a lease longer than the current 10 years — but costs make it a tough sell in Congress.
"The reaction to that has been mostly favorable as a concept, but then gets immediately shut down when it gets scored by [the Congressional Budget Office] because there's a big upfront cost," Hoefner said.
The question, say some lawmakers, is whether there is an incentive for producers to permanently enroll their land in the program and whether the farm bill gives farmers enough assistance to care for the land properly.
"Making the rental agreements permanent might actually be a disincentive for producers who may balk at the idea of permanently giving up control of their acreage," said Conservation, Energy, and Forestry Subcommittee ranking member Tim Walz, D-Minn. "At the end of the day, this is private land. Our farmers are good stewards of the land and will work to ensure conservation efforts continue."
Other arguments against paring back the program are economic. Cox argues that savings from the program are not going entirely to deficit reduction, as some budget hawks claim, but rather to other programs.
"It seems as if there's still a long way to go before this new farm bill becomes a reality, and I think more and more people and more and more members of Congress are beginning to understand that this is a bait-and-switch that's being proposed," Cox said. "They're proposing cutting one program but then using 75 percent of the savings to gin up new programs."
Thomspon argued that the cuts in the conservation title simplify the way farmers and ranchers use programs to improve lands in production, which saves taxpayers money. "We've taken 23 programs down to 13. Part of that is to make it more easy for farmers and ranchers to navigate," he said. "It was not an easy process. I'm pleased to where we've come."
Title II of the House version of the farm bill maintains current funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which helps farmers meet regulations through cost-share incentives. Critics of the program argue that money from it goes to big producers who use that money for concentrated animal-feeding operations. Advocates, meanwhile, say the program gives financial and technical assistance to producers and helps them plan and implement conservation practices.
If the president hasn't signed a measure into law by Oct. 1 — which seems unlikely — the government may not be authorized to enroll any new lands for conservation through the general sign-up process. But many, including Thompson, say the House and Senate will ultimately find agreement on the conservation title.
"My impression is that there is more common ground than not," Thompson said. "I'm very optimistic that we're gonna be able to get that done."