Heathcote op-ed: Programs needed to maintain vulnerable farmland

This op-ed by Susan Heathcote appeared in the Des Moines Sunday Register on January 15, 2012.

The federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has long been a keystone of soil and water conservation on farmland. Since 1986, this program has paid Iowa farmers to plant environmentally sensitive crop land in grass for 10 to 15 years. It has been instrumental in preventing pollution of Iowa lakes and rivers, slowing soil erosion, and creating wildlife habitat for pheasants and other grassland birds.

Farming is a business, and with recent record-breaking corn and soybean prices, farmers have a strong financial incentive to put expiring CRP land back under the plow. The situation is even more urgent because conservation programs like CRP will likely lose funding in the farm bill Congress will negotiate this year.

Iowa now has 1.6 million acres enrolled in CRP, down significantly from the state’s peak enrollment of 2.2 million acres in 1994. Over the last four years, Iowa has experienced a significant drop in CRP renewals and new contracts, resulting in a net loss of over 300,000 acres in CRP.

Iowa faces an impending spike in new contract expirations as one quarter of the Iowa land left in the CRP — more than 400,000 acres — will be eligible to leave CRP in the next two years.

As a result, a major transition of land uses is under way in Iowa, and Iowans have a choice to make. We can use proactive public policy to protect our soil, water and habitat resources, or we could allow short-term profits to drive sensitive land into row crop production whether or not that choice is the best long-term decision.

Good options are available to preserve the benefits of CRP while also allowing land to be economically productive. One way to help CRP compete with row crops is to allow limited haying or grazing on CRP land that is carefully managed to maintain the soil, water and habitat benefits.

Another alternative is to shift funding in the new farm bill from the CRP to the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP). GRP is an easement program that purchases cropping rights on critical land to provide long-term or permanent protection of water quality and habitat while allowing other productive uses such as haying or grazing.

We could also enact policies to make sure the transition of farming from one generation to the next incorporates sustainable practices. One idea to build on — the transition incentives program that is already in the farm bill — provides landowners two years of extra CRP payments if they sell or rent the land to beginning farmers who will develop and implement sustainable practices. Giving young people this opportunity to farm would benefit Iowa’s rural economy and maintain conservation benefits for less cost.

We also need to strengthen federal and state protections of highly erodible cropland whether or not the land was ever enrolled in CRP.

Some provisions are in place now to protect highly erodible cropland. Conservation compliance provisions of the farm bill require this land to have minimum conservation practices in place to be eligible for federal subsidies including publicly funded price support payments and direct payments.

However, shifting priorities in the farm bill are likely to reduce the current incentive farmers have to follow their conservation plans unless compliance is tied to eligibility for publicly subsidized crop insurance.

But especially with uncertainty about the future of the farm bill in Congress, Iowa cannot rely only on federal protections for our vulnerable land.

Iowa already has a little-known and underutilized soil erosion law that provides county conservation districts the authority to enforce minimum conservation practices in places where soil erosion is excessive. Conservation district commissioners need to better utilize this law, especially with economic forces encouraging farmers to convert more highly erodible land to row crop production.

To succeed, all of these options must have an adequate, sustainable source of state resources that can be used along with federal funding to meet Iowa’s conservation needs. The state should also leverage the work that many privately funded conservation and agriculture groups are already doing.

Regardless of the details, the need for action is clear. Iowa’s agricultural landscape is experiencing dramatic changes. CRP land that has been in grass for a decade or more has prevented damaging soil erosion, protected water quality, and preserved invaluable wildlife habitat.

How Iowans manage land leaving CRP will be critical to maintaining — and even building upon — 25 years of conservation gains from the program.

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