by Scott McLeod
When most of us think of the Farm Bill, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) immediately comes to mind. We also think about how this program helps increase duck populations and can put more birds over our decoy spreads. CRP pays farmers to restore perennial grass cover on marginal cropland under 10- or 15-year contracts, providing valuable habitat for nesting ducks, upland game birds, and a variety of other wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) estimate that prairie croplands enrolled in CRP raise 30 percent more ducks than do landscapes without the additional upland cover this program provides.
CRP not only produces more ducks but also prevents soil erosion and protects water quality in wetlands vital to waterfowl, other wildlife, and people. According to FSA estimates, in 2008 CRP cover in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) prevented 24 million tons of sediment, 117 million pounds of nitrogen, and 12 million tons of phosphorous from washing into this region's lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Soil erosion from surrounding fields can significantly degrade wetland productivity. Research on invertebrate communities in prairie wetlands has found that only a few millimeters of sediment can suffocate many species of aquatic insects that provide essential food resources for nesting hens. Additionally, runoff from herbicides and pesticides can harm wetland plants and decrease aquatic insect populations in wetlands.
At its peak, 8.4 million acres of marginal cropland were enrolled in CRP across the U.S. portion of the PPR. Unfortunately, a variety of economic factors have encouraged many farmers to put former CRP tracts back into row crop production. Since 2007, 1.5 million acres of CRP have expired in the PPR and another 2.8 million acres—approximately 42 percent of the remaining CRP in this vital duck-producing region—are scheduled to expire by 2012.
"The fact is that many of the waterfowl we enjoy seeing and hunting are raised on working farms and ranches, especially those in the Prairie Pothole Region," says DU CEO Dale Hall. "To ensure skies filled with waterfowl today, tomorrow, and forever, we have to help farming and ranching families make a living while also helping them to conserve the land, soil, and water. Farm Bill conservation programs help make this possible."
Helping Farmers Help the Ducks
Farm Bill conservation programs clearly provide many quantifiable benefits for wildlife and the environment, but another less-publicized benefit of these programs is the measurable contribution they make to the economy, especially in the agricultural sector and in rural communities. For example, CRP provides farmers with a reliable source of annual income on highly erodible, less productive cropland. In many cases, these payments help financially vulnerable landowners maintain possession of their farms and stay in their communities. In 2008 the FSA distributed nearly $1.8 billion in rental payments to landowners enrolled in CRP. FSA distributed an additional $153.5 million in incentive and cost-share payments to help landowners establish cover practices on their property. In North Dakota and South Dakota, where CRP grasslands provide vital nesting habitat for breeding ducks, FSA distributed nearly $2 billion to private landowners over a 10-year period from 1998-2008.
In the southern United States, Ducks Unlimited and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service have helped farmers restore nearly 180,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest on flood-prone former cropland enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program.
The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) is another Farm Bill conservation program that is highly beneficial to waterfowl and landowners. WRP differs from CRP in that it offers landowners financial assistance to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on agricultural landscapes through perpetual and 30-year easements and restoration cost-share agreements that generally exceed 10 years. WRP is administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and was first authorized in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990. From 1992-2007, NRCS restored 1.9 million acres of wetlands and other wildlife habitat via WRP, distributing more than $2.1 billion in compensation and financial assistance to private landowners nationwide.
WRP provides important habitat for waterfowl through every phase of the birds' life cycle on breeding, migration, and wintering areas. Louisiana and Arkansas lead the nation with more than 200,000 acres enrolled in WRP in each state. However, 22 states have more than 30,000 acres in WRP, including the PPR states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa; important waterfowl migration states like Missouri, Nebraska, and Illinois; and other important wintering states like California, Mississippi, and Texas.
While the main purpose of Farm Bill conservation programs is to improve and protect our soil, water, and wildlife resources, they also help support our nation's capacity to produce food and fiber, and to a degree, benefit all farmers and ranchers by curbing the production of surplus agricultural commodities. A 2007 study by the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC) at the University of Tennessee examined the impact that significant reductions in CRP would have on crop prices, net market income for producers, and government payments. According to this study, allowing CRP contracts to expire with no opportunity for re-enrollment or new enrollments would result in 37 percent of the 34.7 million acres that were enrolled in the program in 2007 returning to crop production by 2015. That would amount to 12.6 million acres being returned to crop production. As a result, prices for corn, soybeans, and wheat would be suppressed because of increased production and supply. In fact, APAC estimates that farmers would lose $6.9 billion in net market returns on these crops by 2015. In addition, since most CRP acres are highly erodible and marginal in terms of their ability to produce crops, returning them to production would increase federal payments for the eight major crops by 34 percent—or $3.8 billion—above USDA's estimate for farm program spending in 2015. The net effect of eliminating CRP would be an additional cost to the U.S. government—and taxpayers—of $32.6 billion.