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Minnesota’s Prairie Pothole Region a Potential Priority in Proposed CRP Signup

March 15, 2010

Earlier this month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced plans by the USDA to open a new signup period later this year for the Conservation Reserve Program.  USDA last held a signup period in 2006.  With the most recent farm bill in 2008, the CRP program was reduced in number of acres allowed to participate, falling from 39.2 million acres to 32 million acres.  This was an unfortunate and short-sighted reduction.  CRP provides some of the most cost-effective conservation and environmental benefits while also accomplishing other USDA goals such as increased stability in commodity market prices. 

Under a reduced CRP acreage and higher commodity prices, many retiring CRP contracts will not get renewed.  This is an unfortunate reality of budget constraints and poses a double hit on conservation and environmental sustainability.  First, new acres needing conservation will not get enrolled, allowing the continuation of soil erosion and nutrient loss which play a major role in impacting environmental health downstream.  Second, the loss of existing CRP acres over the next few years (4.4 million acres of CRP are set to expire September 30th and 14.2 million acres are set to expire between 2011 and 2013) will mean more than the reopening of marginal land into production and the consequent erosion issues.  These expiring CRP contracts will mean the loss of prime wildlife habitat that has played a major role in upper Midwest state economies and ecosystems.  Every fall hunters from across the United States migrate to Minnesota and the Dakotas for duck hunting.  With fewer CRP acres there will be less habitat, meaning fewer ducks, and less land from which to hunt.  Ecosystems which developed on these CRP acres played roles in filtering and managing water so that we would not have to mechanically and chemically treat our water when it reached downstream urban areas.  Additionally, returning CRP lands back to cultivated production will result in a loss of most of the carbon sequestered into those soils.  As grasses were allowed to grow on CRP acres, they pulled carbon from the land and placed or sequestered it into the soil.  But when the sod is broken, the soil becomes exposed to the air and begins to release much of the carbon sequestered over the life of that sod buildup. 

Fortunately, the USDA is examining options under this newly proposed CRP signup to target key “at-risk” acres or acres that produce the highest ecological value.  The Prairie Pothole region of Minnesota and the Dakotas is one of those regions producing a high ecological value.  Additionally, because of higher corn prices, much of the Prairie Pothole region faces the threat of CRP loss at the hands of corn.  Corn’s recent decline after peak prices in 2008 may allow more farmers to attempt to renew their CRP contracts rather than have to turn to re-opening CRP land for corn production.  It is important to note here that farmers cannot necessarily be blamed for opting to return to corn.  Like all of us, they face economic pressures.  Hopefully, through this new CRP signup, and the opportunity in the next farm bill to increase CRP acreage, farmers will not have to choose between economic interest and environmental benefit.  Unfortunately, many farm policies are designed to place market return at odds with environmental stewardship.  Additionally, oscillating conservation policies do more harm than good.  We need stable conservation policies to retire marginal lands as well as new federal policies that tie economic return to environmental stewardship.  Let me suggest to Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack to at least begin with stable conservation policies. Any other suggestions?

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