Since the mid-1980s, the U.S. government, in an attempt to reduce the environmental fallout from large-scale farming, has been paying farmers to set aside less-than-ideal land for conservation. The results have been overwhelmingly positive: Soil erosion has been reduced; chemical and fertilizer runoff has eased; habitats for game birds and endangered species have been created and enlarged. The pushback to climate change has been equally noteworthy: In 2007, the lands trapped 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, making the Conservation Reserve Program the most effective government-funded defense against greenhouse gases on private lands.
"We use this program for everything," said John Johnson, a U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy administrator. "We protect New York City's drinking water with it. We preserve groundwater with it. We protect the salmon habitat in the Pacific Northwest with it. It's a wonderful program."
But dark clouds are forming on the protected fields. Historically, farmers have been eager to participate in the program, and many still are. But as prices for crops have soared, a growing number of farmers have opted to put conservation land back into production. The trend is expected to accelerate—to the grave concern of many observers who caution that years of steady environmental progress could be halted, or even reversed, as buffers and habitats are converted into farmland.
Congress, meanwhile, could further strain the program as it races to complete massive farm legislation this spring. (After several extensions, the bill now has a mid-April deadline.) Conservation programs, according to those familiar with negotiations, are at risk of being slashed as negotiators try to keep funding levels under control.
So far, the shift in land use has been modest but significant. In September 2007, according to the USDA, 36.8 million acres were enrolled in the program; last month, 34.7 million acres remained. In other words, in a relatively short time, more than 2 million acres came out after years of solid expansion.
Much of the slide occurred between September and November, when thousands of farmers with contracts up for renewal chose not to renew them. The atrophy has been well distributed geographically, but it has been particularly acute in states that grow lots of corn and soybeans: In Iowa, 128,000 acres went back into farming; in North Dakota, 250,000 acres; in South Dakota, 300,000 acres. "Wheat, soybean, and corn markets are providing very strong incentives to plant more acreage this fall and next spring," then acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said at the time. "Producers responded strongly, with corn acres increasing to their highest level since 1944."
The transition of land from conservation to farming is projected to continue, according to available figures. By 2010, more than 4.5 million acres of conservation acres will be put into farming, and some estimates have put the figures even higher. Within the next five to 10 years, nearly a quarter all CRP land could be removed.
"Right now, given the current economic climate, many farmers are trying to find every available piece of ground to put into production," says Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The shift is being echoed abroad on a larger and even more severe scale: From Brazil to Indonesia, farmers are razing millions of acres of rainforest and wilderness and overtaking pasturelands to grow crops that can be used to feed the global demand for biofuels.
On balance, a majority of farmers are choosing, for the moment, to stay in the program. Though high crop prices can provide incentives to switch, other considerations still matter. Some of the land in conservation, for instance, is "marginal," meaning that it's harder to grow crops on it, especially in numbers that bring in good money. Returning land to production also requires labor and investment—in fuel, fertilizer, and other items that, like crops, are also increasingly expensive. "If you are getting good rental rates and no production costs, other than having someone mow it every few years," Hoefner says, "it's not a bad deal [to stay in], especially if you're using it as retirement savings."
But with crop prices so high—corn, for instance, closed at $5.56 a bushel on Wednesday, compared with $2.20 in 2006—the stakes are getting higher. Most farmers in the program are committed to 10- or 15-year contracts; when their contracts expire, they can renew or opt out. So if crop prices stay high—as estimates suggest—the lure of productive land will be something with which each wave of farmers in the program will be grappling.