By Scott McLeod

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays landowners to restore perennial grass cover on marginal cropland under 10- or 15-year contracts, recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. More than 31 million acres are currently enrolled in this program, benefiting many species of wildlife, especially waterfowl. In the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) of the United States, 6.8 million acres are currently enrolled in CRP, providing crucial nesting habitat for ducks and other grassland-nesting birds.

CRP was born during the mid-1980s, when the farm sector of the U.S. economy was under great stress. Overproduction caused grain stocks to pile up, crop prices to plummet, and farm income to decline to record lows. Existing government agricultural programs encouraged farmers to cultivate fragile, highly erodible lands, resulting in surplus crop production and excessive soil erosion. To help address these issues, Congress established CRP in the Food Security Act of 1985. Initial CRP enrollment was authorized not to exceed 45 million acres. CRP's main goal was reducing soil erosion on highly erodible land. Secondary goals included protecting groundwater and surface water, safeguarding the nation's capacity to produce food and fiber, and providing income support to producers by curbing the production of surplus commodities.

In 1990, more than 32.5 million acres were enrolled in CRP nationwide. Nearly one-third of these acres were located in the prairie states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and Iowa, providing vital habitat for breeding waterfowl and other wildlife. Congress reauthorized CRP in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990, but appropriations legislation and budget reconciliation measures reduced authorized CRP enrollment to 38 million acres.

As wet weather returned to the U.S. prairies during the mid-1990s, duck production on CRP lands soared, adding millions of additional birds to the fall flight. CRP was reauthorized in the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, and enrollment was authorized at 36.4 million acres. In addition, for the first time wildlife conservation was given equal status with improving soil and water quality as one of the program's stated goals.

Prior to passage of the 1996 Farm Bill, the PPR was included as a National Conservation Priority Area in CRP, making eligibility for enrollment in the program easier for landowners in this region. In addition, the USDA Farm Services Agency (FSA) modified CRP rules to allow landowners to enroll small acreages like buffer strips through a continuous enrollment process. A number of these practices are now specifically targeted for creating habitat for wildlife, including nesting ducks.

CRP was once again reauthorized in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. The authorized enrollment cap was increased to 39.2 million acres, and in 2007 CRP enrollment peaked at 36.7 million acres nationwide. But contracts on nearly 28 million acres of CRP-including 6 million acres in the PPR-were scheduled to begin expiring in 2007. The FSA subsequently offered two- to five-year contract extensions or new CRP reenrollments to all landowners with CRP contracts scheduled to expire from 2007 through 2010. More than 85 percent of expiring CRP acres were initially extended or reenrolled. Nevertheless, by the beginning of 2008, contracts on more than 2 million acres of CRP land had expired. Later that year, CRP was reauthorized in the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, but total authorized enrollment was reduced to 32 million acres beginning in fiscal year 2010.

Several factors were responsible for Congress's decision to scale back CRP enrollment. Growing concern over the national deficit mandated that all new legislation must limit additional costs to the federal government. Moreover, reducing CRP helped offset new funding for other Farm Bill programs. In 2007 and 2008 commodity prices reached record levels in response to shrinking grain stocks, rising food prices, and fears over food and feed shortages. Cash rents for cropland were also rapidly increasing and quickly outpaced CRP payment rates. Simply put, it became more profitable for landowners to farm their land than enroll it in CRP for 10 or 15 years.

DU believes that creative modifications such as an allowance for cattle grazing are the key to maintaining landowner interest and ensuring that CRP remains a vital part of the landscape.

Demand for food, feed, fiber, and energy is only expected to grow in the years ahead, and the amount of land suitable for producing these products is finite. The pressure to produce more is already having a dramatic impact on rural landscapes across the nation. This is especially true in PPR states. Landowners in this region are presently sending policymakers strong signals that they have limited interest in CRP in its current form. And if CRP doesn't make financial sense for producers, they won't enroll in the program. And who can blame them? After all, farmers and ranchers are business owners who have to make their living off every available acre.

Is a complete overhaul necessary? Absolutely not, but some significant changes may be needed if CRP is to maintain a significant presence on the landscape, especially in the PPR. What might these changes entail? Throughout the life of the program, most CRP land has been restored to dense stands of perennial grass cover. This land is often referred to as "idle" cover because limited management, particularly haying and grazing, is allowed. While these restrictions may have been tolerated by producers in the past and are still acceptable to some landowners today, it's clear that past CRP practices are no longer suitable for many landowners, at least not at current rental rates.

An obvious solution would be to increase CRP rental rates. Unfortunately, in the current budget environment government programs need to cost less, not more, to survive. In DU's judgment, a better alternative may be offering "working lands" options for landowners. Under these scenarios, producers would retain certain rights on how they can use CRP land in exchange for lower rental payments. A land-use option that DU believes would be especially attractive to landowners in the PPR would be to allow cattle grazing on CRP land. Research conducted by DU in the Dakotas and Prairie Canada has found that waterfowl nesting success is strongly correlated with the amount of grass cover present on the landscape. Allowing grazing flexibility on CRP lands would help ensure that large blocks of grass cover remain intact in the PPR.

DU believes that creative modifications such as an allowance for cattle grazing are the key to maintaining landowner interest and the solution to ensuring that CRP remains a vital part of the landscape. It's a classic win-win, where everyone, including producers, rural communities, and waterfowl enthusiasts, will reap the benefits.

Scott McLeod is a government affairs representative at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Global Population Growth and CRP

As the world's human population continues to grow, so does pressure on agricultural lands. According to recent estimates, there are currently about 6.9 billion people worldwide, and projections indicate that the global population will reach at least 9 billion by 2050. More people means a greater demand for food, fiber, and energy, as well as a need for increased agricultural production. This will likely be achieved by putting more land into production and increasing yields through technological improvements in farm equipment, chemicals, fertilizers, and seeds.

But even with greater yields, commodity prices are expected to rise, in some cases dramatically, in the years ahead. And that will undoubtedly encourage producers to put more expiring CRP land back into production. Will conservationists and policymakers recognize these challenges and adapt CRP accordingly to ensure this program remains viable? Or will they ignore the challenges, stay the course, and watch CRP acreage decline or worse, disappear altogether?

For more information on how you can support CRP and other Farm Bill conservation programs, go to