By Randy Gordon, President
In the 1993 fantasy-comedy movie Groundhog Day, Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil Connors (played by the incomparable Bill Murray) drew the unenviable assignment of covering the annual mid-winter festival in Punxsutawney, Pa., only to find himself in a time loop repeating the same day over and over again – wakening each morning to the sounds of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” on the clock radio and the declaration, “It’s Groundhog Day!”
Those who experienced the birth and early years of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in 1985 are justified in thinking they may be living through their own “Groundhog Day” as pre-farm bill talk emerges from some congressional proponents that the CRP’s cap should be increased from the current 24 million acres to 40 million acres (not far from the 45 million acres originally authorized), and that one of the program’s discredited and rejected initial purposes – using it as a tool to control U.S. grain supplies – should be resurrected.
Those of us in the grain, feed and processing industry – and our farmer-customers – have seen that movie! And unlike the personal transformation and happiness that Phil Connors experiences at the conclusion of the 1993 film, the CRP version didn’t end well. Millions of acres of America’s best and most productive farmland were idled under 10- to 15-year CRP contracts, sucking the economic lifeblood that emanates from production agriculture out of hundreds of rural communities. Many landowners used the CRP in its early years as a retirement program. Rural businesses, including farm equipment dealers, input suppliers and banks, closed. So did schools. Rural populations plummeted.
And how did that supply control thing work out? South American countries plowed up virgin land and joined other foreign competitors to replace idled U.S. cropland on virtually an acre-for-acre basis, taking market share previously held by U.S. farmers.
Congress, under the leadership of then-House Agriculture Committee Chairman (and now Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman) Pat Roberts, R-Kan., eventually responded in the 1996 farm law by ending U.S. acreage-idling programs. Over the years, the CRP also was retooled by establishing an Environmental Benefits Index that gradually focused more priority on enrolling environmentally sensitive land at risk of erosion and to protect water quality, although wildlife benefits were added as a criteria and still have a disproportionately heavy weighting when USDA determines the scoring of acres eligible for enrollment.
Even now, NGFA has determined that 26 percent of the 24.2 million acres that were enrolled in the CRP general signup as of 2012 were classified as “prime farmland.” Here’s how USDA’s own Natural Resources Conservation Service defines “prime farmland”: “Land that has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed, forage, fiber and oilseed crops…It has the soil quality, growing season and moisture supply needed to produce economically sustained high yields of crops when treated and managed according to acceptable farming methods, including water management.”
There also are indications that rental rates paid by USDA to enroll CRP acres in several regions of the country continue to be considerably higher than local farmland cash rental rates, thereby pitting the U.S. government as a competitor against young and beginning farmers trying to enter production agriculture and remain in rural communities. That’s something former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack heard loud and clear during a meeting with young farm leaders in his home state of Iowa during the waning days of the Obama administration.
The NGFA will be placing a high priority in the next farm bill on proactively advocating continued reforms to the CRP so that it focuses even more on truly environmentally sensitive lands, and allows scarce federal funding to be targeted at working land conservation programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or for CRP’s own continuous sign-up program (for which eligibility restricted to certain conservation practices on most environmentally sensitive acres). As part of NGFA’s effort, Director of Economics and Government Relations Max Fisher is compiling examples of the impact CRP has had in various counties across multiple states.
If you’re aware of counties that we should examine, please contact Max at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the sake of U.S. agriculture’s future, the next farm bill needs to avoid a CRP Groundhog Day repeat of the failed policies of the past.