The Free Press
The farm economy is booming and we should all be cheered by it.
Agriculture is a major economic engine in the Midwest and southern Minnesota. Record crop prices, strong exports and efficient farming benefit the region and state.
But high commodity prices have also fueled record high land prices, which threaten to set back gains that have been made in protecting sensitive land from erosion and added to the stock of wildlife habitat.
One of the most successful programs has been the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which makes payments to farmers who agree to take sensitive land out of crop production and plant grass or other vegetation.
But with corn and soybean prices high, farmers are facing the tough decision of whether to keep land enrolled in CRP or put it back in production. Even though the CRP acres are less than prime farmland, farmers can usually make more growing crops than keeping it in CRP.
In the coming years, millions of acres of CRP land in the upper Midwest will be coming up for renewal and most believe there will be a steep drop in the amount of land protected.
The benefits of CRP and similar state programs have been immense, providing important flyways for migrating waterfowl and birds, keeping sediment out of rivers, improving water quality and providing critical wildlife habitat.
Finding funding to make conservation economically viable for farm businesses is, of course, the rub.
But there are some ways to help. The next federal Farm Bill is certain to be smaller, but that doesn’t mean more room shouldn’t be made in it for conservation efforts. Some of the money that has gone to direct subsidies and to subsidize crop insurance could go instead to beefing up conservation programs.
Conservation efforts should also be weighted toward those that permanently take sensitive land out of production. The up front costs are obviously significantly higher, but the benefits are permanent.
Re-directing more state money to conservation, be it from the Legacy fund or elsewhere, and leveraging private sector funds should also be a focus.
Minnesota has made a concerted and successful effort to improve water quality in the Minnesota River basin and Upper Mississippi basin in the past 20 years. At a time when even more pressure is coming to improve the rivers’ water quality, sliding back on CRP and other land conservation programs would be short sighted.