The U.S. Department of Agriculture should be congratulated for giving high priority to the Conservation Reserve Program at a time when budget pressures are building.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last week in Omaha that federal officials plan to keep the program at the full acreage maximum authorized by the 2008 farm bill.
Meanwhile agricultural experts are searching for ways to make the program more economical in the future. For example, officials are exploring the possibility of allowing switchgrass and other potential biofuels to be grown on CRP land.
The use of the land for that type of vegetation might be compatible with the conservation goals of the CRP program. Switchgrass, for example, can be grown without irrigation, and can be harvested at a time when it would not interfere with nesting birds.
The CRP program is an easy target for budget hawks because the checks sometimes go to celebrities and other rich landowners.
But the benefits genuinely flow to all Americans because the program helps reduce water pollution, slow the erosion of soil and provide habitat for wildlife.
When landowners sign up for the program, they agree to plant native grasses and other vegetation on the land. They also agree to forego growing cash crops on the land. Filter strips and forested buffer areas help keep contaminants from reaching streams and rivers.
Priority is given to enrolling fragile, easily erodible land. The program is competitive, Nationally 4.8 million acres was proposed for enrollment last year. Only about 4.3 million acres was accepted.
In September, the enrollment of about 151,000 acres of the 1 million total CRP acres in the state will expire. Nationally, about 4.4 million acres will expire this year. Ag officials hope to enroll about 4 million acres. In coming years, the number of acres that will expire will rise to as high as 6.5 million acres.
The 25-year-old voluntary program, one of the most successful conservation programs in the nation’s history, was reduced substantially in scope a few years ago. The 2008 farm bill cut the number of authorized acres from 40 million to 32 million.
There’s little doubt that in coming years pressure will mount for further reductions in the CRP.
Unlike many agricultural subsidies, the CRP program is one that deservedly draws broad-based support from environmentalists, hunters, birdwatchers and traditional farm organizations. Those supporters will need to be ready to defend the program as budget knives are being sharpened in Washington.