by Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions

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 This week USDA announced acceptance of 2.8 million acres into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), bringing total enrollment to 29.9 million acres. Under the 2008 Farm Bill, taxpayers are paying to set aside up to 32 million acres of American farmland designated as environmentally sensitive land. 

As we approach the 32-million acre limit and the next farm bill, it’s time to talk candidly about the number of acres we are idling in CRP. I think we all know that. With world population growing, more middle class citizens seeking better diets and technology advancing, it’s time to re-think CRP allocations and consider bringing some of that land back into production. 

Looking toward the next farm bill, we need to once again ask: What is the highest and best use of land currently planted to vegetative covers under CRP? If the agriculture budget is going to be on the chopping block, should limited conservation dollars be directed to support working lands or to idle land? Today’s answers will differ from those true twenty-five years ago when CRP was born. 

By 2050, we will have welcomed another 2 billion people to the planet. We need to plan today to feed those additional mouths tomorrow.  Some land that is currently idle could produce crops, and it should. Some land could produce grass and forage for livestock to feed people, and it should.

I propose that we reallocate the 30 million acres currently in CRP roughly in thirds. I think of it as a 10-10-10 approach.

By definition, to be eligible for CRP, all the land currently under contract was at one point under cultivation and should have been highly erodible, but in fact, all of it is not. CRP regulations require that the land must have been farmed during at least four years from 2002 to 2007 or be part of a riparian buffer. In most cases, CRP acres were not the most fertile fields, but that land nevertheless was planted and produced crops.

Some 10 million acres or so covered by CRP are indeed fragile, highly erodible land, and keeping this land out of production provides high environmental benefits. This land is better suited for riparian or wetland buffers, filter strips, grass waterways or contour grass strips. Keeping vegetative cover on this marginal land keeps soil on the ground and out of our waterways. We need to maintain protection on these acres, and they should remain in CRP. 

Roughly another 10 million acres are best suited for grassland or forage crops.  While the land would be marginal for commodity crop production, it can be used for grazing or producing hay and biomass, providing a positive contribution to the food, fiber and fuel chain. We need to move it from fallow ground into production of needed feed, fiber and fuel. At the same time, for the wildlife community, we can preserve nesting and pollinator habitat as we do under the current CRP.

The remaining 10 million acres can be responsibly managed to again produce crops to feed people, and we should encourage farmers to do so.  Even record harvests will not dampen the need for additional grain in the years ahead. The advances in no-till technology and precision agriculture over the past 25 years permit us to farm this land responsibly. In fact, the most reliable information compiled by USDA suggests that more than 8 million acres idled under CRP today are prime farmland.

American farmers have done a tremendous job in providing food to feed our nation. Secretary Tom Vilsack points out that our people spend only 6 or 7 cents out of every dollar to pay for the food we eat. That’s good news for consumers. 

But populations around the world are expanding, and we need to release acres from CRP to allow U.S. producers to meet expanding food needs. In fact, if we don’t do it, other countries will be forced to convert fragile prairies and forests to farmland to produce food. 

I recognize this is a controversial proposal, especially in light of USDA’s addition of 10 percent more land to CRP just this week. My proposal will startle some in both farm and conservation communities. However, I think this 10-10-10 proposal represents a triple win. Farmers can return more land to production, increasing their incomes. Taxpayers will see lower bills for land retirement. And customers here and abroad will have access to more food. 

Changing CRP has a lot of benefits, especially in light of the budget and food security concerns that will surely arise during consideration of the next farm bill. It’s time to put the future of CRP on the table.
About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.

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