Congress should include legislative language as part of the 2012 farm bill that mandates removal of millions of acres of “prime farmland” from the acreage-idling Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), according to a new study conducted for the National Grain and Feed Foundation.
The study, released on June 12, noted that as recently as 2007 – the most recent data publicly available – up to 8.7 million acres that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) itself considers to be “prime farmland” were idled under 10- to 15-year CRP contracts. The study recognized that some prime farmland currently enrolled in the CRP as part of filter strips, grassed waterways and other highly-sensitive acres eligible for continuous signup in the program likely would remain idled. “But with CRP contracts that include more than 70 percent of the acreage enrolled – 21.2 million acres – set to expire over the next five years, there is an urgent need to manage the program so that the most productive land from the reserve is returned to production,” the study said.
While the Senate Agriculture Committee-passed version of the 2012 farm bill gradually would reduce the current 32-million-acre CRP cap to 25 million acres by the end of fiscal year 2017, the new study called for a more rapid reduction that better coincides with the expiration dates of existing CRP contracts. Further, the study said that removing most “prime farmland” from the CRP would equate to a CRP cap of approximately 21 million acres.
The study was conducted by Strategic Conservation Solutions LLC, whose founder and principal – Bruce Knight – previously served as chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and as USDA undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs. The National Grain and Feed Foundation is the research and education arm of the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA).
While supporting continued use of the CRP to protect truly environmentally sensitive lands, the study said the combination of current federal budget pressures and growing domestic and world demand for food, feed, biofuels and exports make it imperative to remove from the CRP millions of acres of productive farmland.
Titled “ReGaining Ground – A Conservation Reserve Program Right-Sized for the Times” – the study contains a comprehensive analysis of the quality of land – including by land capability classes and erodibility indices – enrolled in the 30 states with the highest CRP acreage, most of which are major grain-production regions. The study contains 10 legislative and eight administrative recommendations.
In addition to the recommendation concerning reducing the CRP cap by phasing out existing enrollment – and banning new enrollment – of most “prime farmland,” the study includes the following significant legislative recommendations:
- Escalate the schedule for drawing down the CRP cap to coincide with the schedule for CRP contract expirations. “Current production needs are causing the conversion of fragile native grasslands to crop production, in part because higher-quality land in those same communities is tied up in the CRP,” the report said. “The transition to a smaller CRP mandated by Congress will be easier in the early years of the next farm bill due to contract expirations than it will be in later years.”
- Limit whole-field and whole-farm enrollments in the CRP by requiring such land to meet a more stringent environmental benefits index (EBI) scoring threshold than partial-field enrollments. The study noted that particularly during the early years of the 25-year-old CRP, whole farms and whole fields were enrolled for the express purpose of reducing agricultural production, which resulted in enrollment of high-quality farmland – some of which remains in the reserve.