Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
Administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), CRP provides annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to producers who take marginal cropland out of production and restore it to wildlife habitat. CRP is a voluntary program available to agricultural producers, which helps them safeguard environmentally sensitive land. Most of the land enrolled in CRP on the prairies consists of restored grassland interspersed with numerous wetlands. During the program’s peak enrollment, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates CRP land in the PPR was credited with adding an estimated 2 million ducks to the fall flight each year.
The 2014 Farm Bill will step down the national enrollment cap from 27.5 million acres in 2014 to 24 million acres by 2017. While funding cuts to conservation programs such as CRP present challenges, DU and its partners must also explore and develop new ways to make these programs more economically competitive and attractive to producers in an era of strong commodity prices. This paradigm shift will require habitat managers to think outside the box when developing new incentive options to promote conservation on private lands.
New sod-breaking, Hyde County, South Dakota, 2005
The Prairie Pothole Region was once part of the largest grassland ecosystems in the world. However, the region has changed dramatically since the days of Lewis and Clark. After settlement, grasslands in the most productive portions of the PPR were converted to cropland to feed a growing world population. Today, grassland-dominated landscapes are largely confined to areas with poor soils, steep topography, and/or climatic conditions unsuitable for crop production. During 2006−2011, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska suffered a net loss of 1.3 million acres of grassland—a rate and scale not seen since the Dust Bowl era. In the PPR, grassland loss has exceeded the rate of protection by 500 to 600 percent. Widespread conversion of native prairie is harmful not only to waterfowl and other wildlife, but also to livestock producers, who in many areas depend on native rangelands to sustain their herds.
The 2014 Farm Bill provides much-needed relief to native grassland habitats on the Great Plains. The new law includes a stronger Sodsaver provision, which creates a federal disincentive for converting native prairie to cropland and applies to the top duck-producing states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska. While Sodsaver does not prohibit producers from breaking new land, it ensures that they do so at their own financial risk, and not at the taxpayer’s expense. Under the new law, farmers who plow native sod will have their crop insurance premium subsidies reduced by 50 percentage points during the first four years of production on newly converted lands. This provision also prohibits landowners from substituting yield performance from more productive acres in their operation to newly broken lands. Bringing this often marginally productive land into production provides little benefit to taxpayers, increases soil erosion and nutrient loss, and ultimately results in reduced water quality, increased flooding, and the loss of valuable wildlife habitat.
Read more about Sodsaver »