Virtually every hunter, conservationist and farmer knows what the letters CRP stand for: the Conservation Reserve Program. It is one of the longest running and most successful federal farm programs ever created. At its simplest, it has been a program to take less productive, highly erosive, environmentally sensitive and more difficult-to-farm acres out of production and plant them to a “permanent” cover of grasses, forbs and/or trees. The landowner was paid to keep those acres out of production for a period of time, often 10 years, after which the contract would expire unless the landowner chose to renew it for another term of time. CRP acres were often too steep, rocky, sandy or wet to farm efficiently or profitably.
My father-in-law was among the first to enter some of his less productive farmland into the CRP program at his farm on the Cedar River near Floyd. He took great pride in his first prairie planting on an area with thin, rocky soil, and hand-harvested extra flower seed from nearby remnant stands to add to his plot over many years. That plot is about 35 years old and blooms with many kinds of native prairie flowers every summer. He entered into several more CRP contracts on his home farm over the years that included tree plantings, more prairie and a riparian corridor along a spring-fed creek that flows through the farm. He lavished the same care on those plantings that he did on his first prairie plot, and renewed the contracts on each whenever they expired. Iowa State University’s Extension program and IDNR foresters began using his farm as a site for workshops and field days to demonstrate how conservation and farming could (and should) go together.
We’re told that corn and soybeans have been selling at less than the cost of production lately. The last thing that’s needed at a time like this is more acres of those crops pushing the price even lower. The demand for CRP contracts is at an all-time high, but the current federal farm program has cut the CRP program down considerably in recent years. It is currently capped at 24 million acres; just a fraction of what it once was. Many landowners have plowed up their CRP acres and returned them to production when their efforts to renew the contracts were denied. My father-in-law was just advised that he couldn’t renew the contracts on some of his CRP acres. I’m not worried about his conservation plots being plowed up in spite of the loss of contract payments. They’re too dear to him. A recent national survey found that 85 percent of those surveyed thought the 24 million-acre CRP cap should be increased, and nearly 75 percent felt it should be increased to at least 31 million acres.
Pheasants Forever, one of the nation’s leading conservation advocacy groups, recently advised that four members of the Senate Agriculture Committee (including our Senators Grassley and Ernst) had introduced the GROW Act. This proposed legislation would “drastically impact (damage) Conservation Reserve Program benefits for pheasants, quail and other upland wildlife.” It goes without saying that water quality and soil erosion benefits that the CRP program has provided will also be damaged if the wording in this bill becomes law.
It is in everyone’s best interest that the benefits of the CRP program be strengthened rather than dismantled as proposed in Senate File 2557, the so-called GROW Act. Grassley and Ernst need lots of letters and calls on this one if the federal farm program is to continue to support conservation, rather than just production in rural America.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.