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CRP farmer

Dave Seil, a Gowrie, Iowa, farmer, has a few acres of crop land in the Conservation Reserve Program, but he thinks the federal program can be better targeted.

GOWRIE, Iowa -- Dave Seil believes in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.

However, he is one of many farmers who also believe the voluntary program, designed to conserve and improve the soil, water, and wildlife resources, needs to change.

CRP's future may be one of the key issues in next year's debate over a new farm bill.

It won't be a centerpiece, but the idea of changes to the CRP could be a piece of the puzzle for lawmakers as they sort through the future of farm programs.

At the core of the debate is the idea the conservation program may need to become more targeted, more focused.

Seil, a farmer who has land in the program, thinks that would be the proper approach. But, he concedes the discussion will be complicated.

One reason is the CRP is complicated. Born in the 1980s, it began life as a multi-pronged program.

It was aimed at reducing soil erosion and improving water quality, but also at increasing wildlife habitat, pumping money into a then-struggling farm economy and taking some cropland out of production.

Some have heralded it as a program that made rural areas more economically viable and dramatically increased the habitat for wildlife and hunting.

Others have said it devastated some rural areas, such as Southern Iowa, where many tracts of hilly land went into the program.

They may both be right.

Just as much an issue today is the fact the federal budget is facing serious cuts at the same time farmland prices and farmland rental rates are skyrocketing.

For the CRP, that means some farmers would rather grow corn on land now being dedicated to wildlife habitat. It also means the government must pay more for new CRP contracts, which typically run 10 or 15 years.

Daniel Hellerstein, an economist with the USDA's Economic Research Service, has studied the CRP. He says it is no secret higher land prices could raise program costs and influence enrollment.

In 2006, owners of about 83 percent of the CRP acres set to expire between 2007 and 2010 accepted offers to re-enroll or extend their contracts by two to five years.

Since then, commodity and land prices have soared.

USDA researchers later looked at several scenarios for the program, concluding higher program payments would almost certainly be needed to maintain its environmental benefits as contracts expire.

"It is more expensive to buy land now," Hellerstein says.

Duane Sand, public policy director of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, is a fan of better targeting the program.

However, he says a key to that is making sure the funding remains in place for more targeted alternatives, such as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP).

Those programs do not have a budget baseline, making the work of funding them more difficult, he explains.

"We have changing economic circumstances and changing policy issues," he says.

"We are in a time of high prices and expensive land. It's different than it was in the 1980s."

Sand suggests keeping the CRP at the full-funding level previously authorized by Congress and also funding the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) for working farmland at the Senate appropriation level, which would allow for more CSP contracts.

But, he says USDA could authorize "early outs" for CRP contracts due to expire in the next several years as long as the landowners meet certain stipulations.

For example, they may need to enroll in the CSP and meet certain conservation standards.

The cost-savings of that early out program could be used for more targeted programs, such as CREP.

Delegates at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation's policy meeting this summer had a similar debate. Some pushed for complete elimination of the CRP while others supported keeping it as is.

But, the consensus of that debate was there should be fewer whole-farm contracts and perhaps some type of early out program with a penalty.

At the same time, the delegates said the CRP could be targeted more at the so-called "permanent" signup, which includes more buffer strips and small patches of land aimed at specific conservation goals.

Some wildlife experts argue the larger tracts provide more and better habitat, but Seil likes the idea of a smaller and more targeted CRP.

"We don't have much highly erodible land on our farm," he says. "We do have some buffer strips."

Also, two years ago, he put about three acres into a 10-year contract.

The spot was a wet hole that often didn't produce a crop. The tile beneath it ran shallow enough that deep tillage was not an option.

The CRP offered a chance to keep groundcover on the spot and also to get some type of income from it.

The program was a good option for that piece of ground, he explains.

But, it wouldn't be a good option for the entire farm, and that wouldn't be a good use of tax money.

"I think we need to prioritize," he says.

Conservation is important, and farmers need to find ways to improve water quality, Seil says.

 

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