Is Anyone Paying Attention? We’ve Lost 9.7 Million Acres of CRP Land in Five Years.

The amount of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), at 27.1 million acres, is down by 26 percent, or 9.7 million acres in the past five years, to a 25 year low. During this same time period, corn acreage has increased by 13 million acres. Farmers are once again planting crops on marginal lands “fencerow to fencerow” to cash in on today’s high commodity prices. CRP payments haven’t risen to compete with crop returns, and the program itself is being whittled away by Congress.

The Conservation Reserve Program exists to provide land owners with some financial incentive to idle their land, which in turn benefits the environment while providing commodity price support by reducing surplus production. But now, ethanol policy makes that curb of surplus production unnecessary. The original CRP legislation, the Food Security Act of 1985, set a goal of enrolling over 40 million acres into the program by 1990 but that has never been reached and is now falling sharply. The laws regulating the program have been tweaked many times since begun in 1985, being tugged and pulled by various special interests. Prior to the CRP, we had “set aside acres” in the 1970’s and “soil bank” acres in the 1960’s.

If you visit one of the USDA’s websites promoting the benefits of the Conservation Reserve Program, you will see a long list including the following:

• Reduces soil erosion by an estimated 450 million tons per year, compared with pre-CRP erosion rates.

• Protects surface waters from sediment and nutrient enrichment with enrollment of 1.8 million acres of streamside grass and forested buffers.

• In prime pheasant habitat, a 4 percent increase in CRP grassland acres was associated with a 22 percent increase in pheasant counts.

• Sequesters 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually in soils and vegetation on enrolled lands.

• Includes 8.3 million acres enrolled in the Prairie Pothole region providing habitat important for migratory waterfowl, grassland birds, and dependent species.

There’s nothing not to like in that list. CRP policy is an environmentally friendly one which helps protect this nation’s privately owned natural resources of soil and water. It adds to biodiversity and wildlife habitat. The program is especially appreciated by older farmers. On the down side, nearly half of CRP funds go to the top ten percent of recipients, according to the Environmental Working Group. And, some politicians argue that we shouldn’t pay farmers not to farm where they shouldn’t be farming in the first place.

Today, the economic incentive to grow corn, even on marginal lands, far exceeds the average amount of $57 paid per acre by the CRP program. Keep in mind that most of the acres enrolled in CRP have always been the marginal lands, those which are less productive, and are more vulnerable to erosion. In addition, budgetary pressures in writing a new farm bill make this program an easy target. At this year’s current enrollment the CRP costs the taxpayer around $1.6 billion, down from 2 billion a few years ago.

The map below shows us that 2.5 Million Acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land was lost in just one year in the contracts held in 2011 versus 2012. Much of the area exiting the program this past year was in the Plains states to grow more corn on marginal land. The two states converting the most CRP land to crops this year are North Dakota and Montana, in part due to inroads of corn and soybean acres into this traditionally wheat growing region. After these two states, Minnesota, Missouri, and Kansas top the list of recent CRP lands lost for crop conversion.

Agribusinesses are reaping fat financial rewards from the price incentive to plant a record 97 million acres in corn, including on what was formerly CRP land. Further land use changes are also resulting from the ripple effect that high corn prices have on all of the commodities, not only in the U.S. but around the globe. High prices are appreciated by producers, but current Ag policy of intensive, industrial, all out agricultural production isn’t free and it isn’t sustainable. Unfortunately, environmental interests can’t compete politically with policies that promote the increased use of fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, commodity exchange, and equipment sales.

This next graph shows us the loss of CRP land since 2007 in the top four corn producing states.

Farmers, who are always at the mercy of policy which determines their economic survival, are being told today that they are being patriotic and helping with national security and energy independence by growing corn for ethanol. A truly patriotic policy would instead be the preservation of our nation’s soil and water for future generations.

This story wouldn’t be complete without pointing out the sharp contrast in priorities of land conservation between the top agricultural leaders of the E.U. and the U.S.

The European Union’s agricultural commissioner, Dacian Cioloş, saw the destruction that all out production did to the soils in his home country of Romania under the former communist regime, so he wants to see 7 percent of E.U. farmland turned into environmental priority areas which are off-limits to the use of chemicals and high-tech farming methods. He also knows that 90 percent of Europeans want to see policies which promote the public good in return for their taxpayer money spent on agriculture. He was trained as a horticultural engineer and spent thirteen months over a number of years doing organic farm internships in Brittany France. He was selected to lead the E.U. in agriculture because of his horiticultural experience and education, and for his “modern vision” for agriculture. He wants an E.U. agricultural policy that discourages monocultures, encourages rotational farming methods, and decreases fertilizer use.

In contrast, our U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, is a lawyer and a politician, a former governor of Iowa.

If allowed a say on the issue, Americans, too, might strongly support CRP initiatives over today’s other farm programs which are far more expensive: direct payments, tax payer subsidized crop insurance, and biofuels incentives.

But, CRP support in Congress is fading. In the 2008 farm bill, it took a hit of 7 million fewer acres, and in the 2012 farm bill the plan is to cut another 7 million acres and to cap the program at a total of 25 million acres by 2017. That’s a far cry from the original 40 million acres planned in the 1985 legislation. A total of $6 billion in conservation cuts is expected in the next farm bill. In the congressional fiasco that occurred at 2012’s year-end, the old farm bill was extended through September 2013, when a new bill covering the next five years should have been passed and would now be in place.

The story and statistics that I’ve presented above aren’t widely-known. Americans need to contact their policy-makers to let them know what is important to them. The Conservation Reserve Program and agricultural conservation support is in trouble and needs our help.

UPDATE: I’ve written 2 new, important articles on this subject:
A Recipe for Soil Disaster: Flooding + Today’s Farm Policy
More Updates on Soil Erosion in Iowa and the U.S.

17 thoughts on “Is Anyone Paying Attention? We’ve Lost 9.7 Million Acres of CRP Land in Five Years.

  1. Jason

    Sad but very important review Kay. Thank you.

    The irony is we make more money per acre on perennial pasture, which provides the same benefits as grassland set asides, than conventional corn ground (and we have both types of production on same farm).

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      I think with the economics you describe, CRP that might have once been the answer for farmers who don’t want to work their land anymore are now motivated to rent it out instead for more money to someone who just grows row crops — on a hillside, for example. And they don’t want the work of livestock, either. But, that is just one of the niches of CRP (about 25% iirc). Wildlife habitat is a very important aspect, of course.

      As I did this report I couldn’t believe how involved it was becoming. There are so many laws and aspects to become familiar with.

  2. Jesse

    Much of the land coming out of CRP shouldn’t have been in the program to begin with. Market conditions have changed, but so have farming practices as reduced tillage is playing a beneficial role in capturing carbon, reducing runoff, preserving moisture and reducing soil erosion.

    If you want to talk wildlife populations, just look at South Dakota. Pheasants, Ducks and Gesse have all greatly increased. Waterfowl populations are actually skyrocketing.

    Speaking of “Big Picture”…Our world population continues to grow by 200,000 people per day, that’s a lot of mouth to feed and our farmers are doing what they can to make sure that happens.

    1. Zac Eddy

      Not true, Jesse. Pheasant numbers are down across the range. This can be directly attributed to drought conditions and a loss of habitat (CRP, cattail sloughs, weedy fence rows, etc. I live in an area of high conversion rates (from CRP to corn)–near the epicenter of the Dust Bowl. Much of it is marginal land, at best, and is of a sandy soil type that is very prone to wind erosion. Conservation tillage, no-till, and cover crops all have a role to play in supporting conservation and feeding the world, but in an area where drought is common, these practices are just as likely to fail as corn or soybeans–which were essentially failed crops in 2011 and 2012. Heck, I might even grant that ethanol production has a niche to fill in the grander scheme. But, as I think anyone in my area would say, there is no way anyone would be silly enough to farm that ground without an (propped up) inflated market and crop insurance subsidies that encourage risky behavior. In places like this, whole and partial field enrollments of CRP are hugely important for myriad reasons. A Soil Rental Rate review announced by Secretary Vilsack may potentially increase annual payments from CRP, making it more attractive to landowners. And Continuous CRP practices make sense in terms of economic and ecological benefits in may places. Targeted CRP enrollment (and revisions to crop insurance subsidies) will make it economically beneficial for landowners to incorporate these options into their operations–leaving room for dramatic improvements in ecological quality and per-acre productivity. That’s the only way we can feed the current population and sustain it for more generations.

    2. tom

      Jesse, for waterfowl hunters in the Central and Mississippi flyway, the loss of CRP in North Dakota and northern South Dakota will have a huge impact considering North Dakota alone produces over 50% of the ducks in the flyway and as one can see from the map, is taking the most land out of CRP. How does one make up for the 800,000 ducks per year being produced in CRP?

  3. Tim Gieseke

    The CRP is a good program, but it cannot do it alone – that is maintain our nation’s soils, water and biodiversity. In the last decade or so, many corporations are beginning to search for a definition of sustainability from a natural capital (soils-water) perspective. Our nation’s effort, not necessarily just our government’s effort must be able to capture that new and significant value. I do understand that it is a new box of solutions, but the old box is pretty empty now.
    In the new box, it is about shared governance, ecological valuation and symbiotic demand – check it out:

    It may look like pie in the sky, but I have applied this working model five times since 2006, and I began my sixth this week – getting to turnkey and scalable.

    Thanks for your interest.

    Tim Gieseke
    CRP Readiness Initiative

  4. Barbara-Ann Lewis

    There is a lot of information on your website. Who is “Bigpictureagriculture?” Some of the references are vague, such as “USDA”. Anybody can cite that. I am glad you are putting out information, but it is very important that your readers know WHO you are (i.e., a group of committed people, a corporation, a university, etc). It is also very important to me, a teacher, that more specific sources of information are cited, e.g., if USDA, what section, or better yet, what publication, so that the quality of the information can better be determined. Your graphics are good, informative, and useful for the classroom. But only if they are correct.

    Thank you.

  5. jrod

    If we have 200,000 new mouths to feed everyday, then we should quit making ethanol out of corn and find another source, so we can use that corn to feed people.

  6. Derrick Nelsen

    Why don’t we drill for oil domestically and become energy independent, without using corn for ethanol. Am I missing something here?

  7. Ken

    I have 54 Acres(mostly hay), and though it would be horrible for planting corn/beans do to it rolling I am not able to apply for CRP do to not planting corn in the last 10 years. What a shame, I would have it all CRP if they would let me

  8. Anonymous


    Given your screen name, I am assuming you heard about a thing called the Dust Bowl? It took programs like the CRP to keep your population from migrating to California or get blown into Missouri…

  9. Kansas68

    Nice article and thank you for insight into a great conservation program. I grew up on the prairie and remember the clean farming of the late 70’s and 80’s. Then in 1985 CRP was created to set aside erodible and marginal farm land. To improve local and regional water quality by reducing the amount of chemicals used. And increase wildlife habitat.

    As a pheasant hunter, I was impressed by the positive effects CRP had on bird numbers. By the late 80’s and early 90’s pheasant numbers increased dramatically across their range.

    As a conservationist I welcomed the fact that millions of acres were idled.

    I read in the Wall Street journal last week about the new cash crunch that corn producers are beginning to see. As corn prices return to under $4. After several years of record high prices and the destruction of millions of acres that include wetlands, tree lined fence rows, weedy pastures and marginal ground.

    We are all stewards of our land…and farmers and ethanol producers must remember that!

    1. Diann Mabus

      Kansas, as you said “We are all stewards of our land…and farmers and ethanol producers must remember that!”
      And we must remember that we are ALL stewards of our land and accept some of the responsibility for habitat destruction when we champion renewable energy production while demanding that oil and coal energy production cease. Farmers and ethanol producers are only growing corn and producing ethanol because we’ve made it financially attractive. Take away the subsidies and you’ll see corn and ethanol production drop.


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