The Farm Bill, Ducks, and the Economy

Agricultural conservation programs are good for farmers, hunters, and business

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.
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.
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.

Supporting Outdoor Recreation and Jobs

Outdoor recreation, particularly hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching, often provide a much-needed economic boost for rural communities. Landscape-level Farm Bill conservation programs like CRP and WRP contribute significantly to the economy by providing an abundance of habitat for wildlife and places for people to participate in outdoor recreation. The USFWS reports that in 2006 approximately 87 million U.S. residents—38 percent of the population age 16 or older—participated in recreational activities related to fish and wildlife.

Outdoor recreationists are passionate about their hobbies. Each year they spend billions of dollars on hunting and fishing licenses, firearms, ammunition, archery equipment, binoculars, scopes, assorted outdoor apparel, lodging, fuel, meals, and groceries. These purchases help support thousands of businesses, including motels, restaurants, gas stations, supermarkets, sporting goods stores and manufacturers, bait shops, and many others. According to the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, expenditures by the 34 million sportsmen and -women who hunted and fished in 2006 directly supported 1.6 million jobs; provided $25 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue; and generated $192 billion for the nation's economy.

As you may have guessed, waterfowl hunters have plenty of economic clout. In 2006 the nation's 1.3 million waterfowl hunters age 16 or older directly spent more than $900 million on their sport. These expenditures helped support 27,618 jobs and generated $884.5 million in employment income, $153.8 million in state tax revenue, $192 million in federal tax revenue, and more than $2.3 billion in total economic output. The impact of waterfowl hunting is especially significant in southern states, where a large proportion of migratory waterfowl pursued by hunters are raised on the prairies. In Texas, for example, waterfowl-hunting-related expenditures in 2006 supported 2,948 jobs and generated more than $204.8 million in total economic output. In neighboring Arkansas, waterfowl hunting supported 2,505 jobs and generated more than $124 million in total economic output.

Overcoming Myths and Misconceptions

Given the immense environmental and economic benefits that Farm Bill conservation programs provide to people and wildlife, one would assume these programs would face little opposition among the public and in Congress. But surprisingly, the conservation provisions in the Farm Bill have many powerful enemies, who will be working in concert to weaken or eliminate CRP, WRP, and other conservation programs in upcoming legislation. A rallying cry for these opponents of Farm Bill conservation programs, particularly CRP, is that they contribute to declining rural populations and economies in some parts of the nation. In both cases this is simply untrue, and the evidence lies in a wealth of scientifically credible information.

Across much of the United States, agriculture is the backbone of rural communities, and in general, population size is a good barometer for the vitality of these communities. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, the number of farms across the United States has been declining for decades, beginning well before CRP was authorized in the Food Security Act of 1985. North Dakota and South Dakota, two especially important states for U.S. waterfowl production, have followed the same trend. Rural areas in Canada's prairie provinces have experienced similar population declines, even in the absence of CRP or a CRP-like program.

The USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) has also studied CRP's economic and social impacts on rural communities. Not surprisingly, the ERS also found that high CRP enrollment did not significantly affect rural population trends. Much like the trend in declining farm numbers, counties with high CRP enrollment and declining rural populations had local economies that were suffering before CRP was implemented.

Two other things that are vital to supporting healthy rural communities and economies are local government services and tax revenue. The ERS found no significant evidence that high CRP enrollment affected either. The fact is, rural population declines have been a long-term problem in many parts of the country. There are many causes of these declines, but clearly, Farm Bill conservation programs are not one of them.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack seems to agree. This past fall, while attending an agriculture show in North Dakota, he was asked why the USDA continues to support CRP when it reduces business activity and hurts rural economies. "CRP is a strategy in many parts of the country for growing the economy for this reason: habitat is also tied to an expansion of outdoor recreation and it is an enormous economic opportunity for rural America," Secretary Vilsack said. "Outdoor recreation is a $730 billion industry, and to the extent that we increase hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and canoeing opportunities in many parts of the country, it will help us create economic opportunities. It will actually help us repopulate some of these communities."

What You Can Do to Help

The next time you hear someone lamenting the cost of Farm Bill conservation programs like CRP, take the time to remind him or her of all the public benefits that these programs provide for the environment, wildlife populations, and the economy. This is precisely why Ducks Unlimited and our partners have strongly supported conservation provisions in Farm Bill legislation dating back to 1985, when key conservation programs, including CRP and Swampbuster, were established. And that's why DU will be working hard to ensure that these programs are included and well funded in the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill. Nowhere can DU's public-policy efforts provide greater landscape-level benefits for ducks and other wildlife more cost effectively. And by voicing your support for these Farm Bill conservation programs to your elected representatives in Washington, D.C., you can play a key role in ensuring that DU's Farm Bill policy goals are met.

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

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