The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 5, 2013

Cross: Conservation Reserve Program losing ground to quick cash

By John Cross
Free Press Staff Writer

— The Conservation Reserve Program has been a popular and effective component of federal farm policy since 1985, reducing soil erosion and water pollution while at the same time, creating critical wildlife habitat.

But after paying billions of dollars to farmers to retire marginal land over nearly three decades, taxpayers and conservationists now are discovering just how temporary their investment has been.

More than 23 million acres of grasslands and wetlands have been plowed and converted to row crops between 2008 and 2011 as commodity prices have soared.

Long-recognized basic conservation measures such as maintaining grassy waterways and buffer strips have been sacrificed to crop production.

That was part of a message Craig Cox brought to several hundred people attending the opening session of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s annual Roundtable meetings in St. Paul on Friday.

That conservation is taking a backseat to cash nowadays on most American farms should come as no surprise.

Cox, senior vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources for the Environmental Working Group based in Ames, Iowa, said increased demand for grains because of improved lifestyles in emerging countries and ethanol production have played a role.

But the rush to plant more of the countryside to row crops also has been accelerated by an existing federal crop insurance program that have shifted the risk of farming marginally productive lands from farmers onto tax payers.

The challenge in the future, Cox said, will be to balance the continued high demand for commodities with effective, more “durable” conservation measures. 

Conservation compacts included in federal farm policy over the last three decades, notably the popular Conservation Reserve Program, have worked well, he said.

But he added that the temporary nature of tax payer-funded CRP now is being illustrated by the continued loss of CRP across the countryside.

“Thirty years of investment of taxpayers’ dollars have been lost,” he said.

What is needed, he said, is a more durable form of conservation pact in farm policy that sets basic standards of land use.

“It’s not a technical problem. We already know what to do to solve the problem,” he said, adding that there are already award-winning farmers committed to conserving and protecting their land.

“Purely voluntary approaches for durable conservation practices have failed,” he said. “It’s time to define basic standards of care for the land.”

On a federal level, farm policy needs to focus on permanent conservation practices and modifications in the existing crop insurance system. On a state level, standards need to be set to address buffer strips along waterways, prevention of gully erosion, and access of livestock to waterways.

Acknowledging that budgetary concerns will factor into congressional debates over new farm policy, Cox said that there is plenty of money in farm bill to protect farm concerns along with those of conservationists and tax payers and yet address deficit reduction.

Cox’s comments followed those of DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, who spoke of some of the agency’s accomplishments during the past year.

Stressing the assistance received from partnerships with volunteers and others, he highlighted the first wolf season in more than 40 years, increased license fees, stepped up efforts to halt the spread of aquatic invasive species and modifications to the waterfowl season that increased hunter opportunities.

Noting that the first Minnesota game warden was hired 125 years ago, Landwehr said two Conservation Officer Academies, the first to be held in several years, resulted in 16 new conservation officers being stationed throughout the state.

Landwehr said DNR efforts in the coming year will be water quality and quantity issues, implementation of a prairie management plan, continued AIS prevention and hunter and angler recruitment and retention.

The Minnesota River also will be the focus of the DNR as part of the Minnesota River Conservation and Recreation Area.

Landwehr said the agency will be looking at ways to maximize the outdoor multi-use recreational opportunities along the Minnesota River, particularly along the stretch from New Ulm to Granite Falls.

The annual roundtables that have been held since 1989 bring together stakeholders and conservation groups to discuss conservation concerns with DNR representatives and some legislators.

Items and issues discussed and raised at the two-day events traditionally have planted the seeds for new regulations and outdoor initiatives.

John Cross is a Mankato Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 507-344-6376 or or follow him on Twitter @jcross_photo.