Tag Archives: conservation reserve program

Senate Agriculture Committee completes its version of the 2012 farm bill

The United States Senate Agriculture Committee completed its proposal for the 2012 farm bill on April 26.  The bill will now move forward for consideration by the full Senate, possibly later this month.

The farm bill provides billions of dollars in funding for conservation programs on agricultural land, and for Iowa, a state with more than 26 million acres of cultivated cropland, no other single piece of legislation plays as large a role for soil and water conservation.

Iowa also has an important role to play in the writing of the farm bill because the state’s two Senators, Charles Grassley and Tom Harkin, are both influential members of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

This year’s farm bill debate is especially significant because Congress is trying to reduce federal spending in many areas.  The proposal the Agriculture Committee has now approved will save $23 billion over 10 years, but that includes a $6.37 billion dollar cut to farm conservation programs over the same time period.


The need for cost savings has pushed Congress to look for ways to streamline and reform farm bill programs, and reaction to progress in the Senate Agriculture Committee’s methods for doing so has been mixed.

Craig Cox, senior vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources of the Environmental Working Group, questioned whether Congress is working toward “real” reforms.  Cox criticized the proposal for shifting additional resources to protecting farmers’ bottom lines while cutting conservation and anti-hunger programs.

“A farm bill that cuts programs for the hungry and the environment to help finance a new entitlement program and unlimited insurance subsidies for the largest and most profitable farm operations should not be called a ‘reform’ bill,” Cox said.

But Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), was more optimistic, praising what NSAC called “historic reforms to commodity subsidies.”

“We applaud the Senate Agriculture Committee for including common sense rules for commodity payments and ending years of abuse by closing program loopholes,” Hoefner said.  “Thanks to Senator Grassley’s tireless leadership, the Committee was able to make sure that hardworking farmers—not mega farms and absentee investors—are the key beneficiaries of farm programs.”


In 1985, American taxpayers and farmers entered into a contract to provide a safety net for the country’s food producers in return for protection of critical natural resources.  Known as “conservation compliance,” this policy requires farmers to follow conservation plans that limit soil erosion on highly erodible land as well as preventing destruction of wetlands and native grasslands.  Farmers who willfully violate their conservation plans risk losing taxpayer funded benefits.

Taxpayer-funded subsidies for crop insurance are not currently linked to conservation compliance, and because insurance premium subsidies are becoming an increasingly important part of the taxpayer-funded safety net for farmers, many conservation groups including the Iowa Environmental Council believe connecting the subsidies to basic conservation expectations is critical.

The Senate took one important step toward this goal by adopting a nationwide “Sodsaver” provision protecting grasslands and native prairies which have not yet been farmed.  The provision would reduce available crop insurance subsidies by half and prohibit other farm program payments for any native prairie or grassland a farmer puts into production.

“By agreeing to a nationwide ‘Sodsaver’ provision… the Senate Agriculture Committee made sure that taxpayer dollars are not subsidizing the destruction of native grass and prairie lands,” said Hoefner.  “These lands are diminishing at a rapid rate and protecting them provides ranching opportunities and economic, environmental, and recreational benefits to rural communities.”

Protections for native grasslands are only part of the action Congress must take on conservation compliance.  The Iowa Environmental Council will continue efforts with partners to include these protections in the final farm bill.

“The Committee has acted to limit insurance subsidies for farmers who put native prairie or grasslands into production, and we are hopeful they will also apply this standard in cases where farmers drain wetlands or farm highly erodible land without sufficient conservation practices,” said Susan Heathcote, Iowa Environmental Council water program director.

“In all three of these areas, taxpayers should not help pay insurance premiums for practices that degrade the long-term health of our natural resources,” she added.  “We hope Congress will recognize the need for these common-sense conservation protections.”


The Senate Agriculture Committee also agreed to reduce the number of acres protected by the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) from 32 million to 25 million acres nationwide.

Conservation experts have argued that such a reduction only recognizes a decline in protected land that is already happening because of current market conditions.  As Heathcote wrote in a Des Moines Register op-ed in January, “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.”

Other changes to the CRP program approved in the Senate bill will help counter some of the impact of declining enrollment, including:

  • doubling the funding for the CRP Transition Incentives Program, which helps to incentivize the sale or lease of land leaving the CRP program to a beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer who agrees to manage the land with a conservation plan.
  • allowing grasslands to be enrolled in CRP under certain conditions
  • relaxing some restrictions on livestock grazing on CRP land for beginning farmers


The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is providing extensive analysis of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s version of the farm bill.  See this post for more information on Sodsaver and conservation compliance, and this post for information on other conservation programs, including more details on CRP.

They said it: Major shift possible in critical farm conservation program

With negotiations on the farm bill about to get underway, we’re continuing to hear conversation about a dramatic shift in land use in Iowa as high commodity and land prices are pushing more land into production of corn and soybeans.  This is the topic Susan Heathcote discussed in a Des Moines Register op-ed in January.

Here’s Iowa State University Extension Agronomist Paul Kassel talking about the general trend in CRP acres statewide:

“With grain prices and land prices as high as they are now, the economic situation may be causing farmers to return any retiring CRP acres into corn and soybean production.”

And here’s Gary Grave, who runs a farm management and land sale company in the northwest Iowa community of Spencer:

“If CRP is coming out, that will probably go back to corn production, but in our area, where we have good, quality land, we don’t have a lot of CRP,” Grave said. “That’s more so in southern Iowa, where they have hilly soils. They have a lot of CRP down there and a lot of that is coming out and instead of putting it back into CRP, they’re putting it into production because of the great profits.”

These individuals are making good points, and it is reality that farmers will follow economic signals to make their planting decisions.  The key question is, what can public policy do to keep conservation practices in the mix under these circumstances?  Susan Heathcote offered suggestions in her op-ed and Iowans should discuss a broad range of options to maintain the significant benefits federal farm conservation programs provide to Iowa.

Farm bill negotiations will be getting underway soon in Washington.  Stick with us and we’ll give you opportunities to tell your representatives how they can protect conservation results in Iowa.


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.

Did you see Susan Heathcote’s op-ed on the Conservation Reserve Program?

Iowa Environmental Council water program director Susan Heathcote penned an op-ed for today’s Des Moines Sunday Register that discussed the future of the 1.6 million acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program in Iowa.

As Susan explained, CRP has been a keystone conservation program in Iowa for 25 years.  But although you may have heard of CRP–or read articles on its role in Iowa, like this one, which appeared recently in the New York Times–you might not know how the program works.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition explains the program this way in its Grassroots Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill:

“The primary purposes of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) are to conserve and improve the soil, water, and wildlife resources by temporarily removing land from agricultural production. Under the CRP general sign-up provision, USDA offers annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to farmers to establish long-term conserving cover, primarily grasses and trees, on land that has been in row crop production… All CRP contracts between USDA and agricultural landowners are for 10 to 15 years, with the longer agreements for land planted to trees.”

Because land in CRP is covered in grass all throughout the year, it’s less exposed to soil erosion than it would be if it were plowed and planted in row crops.  And the grass also effectively filters out significant amounts of excess nutrients–nitrogen and phosphorous–that might otherwise end up causing serious water quality problems in our streams, rivers, and lakes.

A map showing the boundaries of the Mississippi River basin with a distribution of dots to indicate the location of acres enrolled in CRP.

One dot on this map represents 1000 acres enrolled in CRP

In fact, viewed across the whole Mississippi River basin, the environmental benefits of land in CRP are extraordinary:  the USDA estimates that in 2010, across this whole area, CRP kept 159 million tons of soil in place and kept 431 million pounds of nitrogen and 89 million pounds of phosphorous out of waterways.

Clearly, what happens to this resource in Iowa and around the nation is critically important.  And at the same time, for the reasons Susan discussed, significant amounts of land seem ready to leave the protection of the Conservation Reserve Program–including highly vulnerable land at risk for significant soil erosion.

Because of this risk, the Iowa Environmental Council is prepared to support a variety of policies to protect the conservation gains CRP has given us and keep Iowa’s most vulnerable land safe.  And you can help.  Be sure you’re signed up to receive our action alerts so you’ll know when the moment is right to speak out in defense of conserving Iowa’s landscape.