The Shrinking State of Farmland Conservation

Soggy farmland is seen Wednesday, April 27, 2011, in Commerce, Mo. Powerful storms that swept through the nation's midsection have made work difficult for the region's farmers.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Sept. 18, 2013, 4:30 p.m.

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.”

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