The CRP: Paying Farmers Not to Farm

Chuck Lesh

hide captionChuck Lesh of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service examines a mallard egg in a Conservation Reserve Program field near Wing, N.D.

Dan Charles, NPR
A mallard's nest is tucked away in tall grass in a North Dakota field rented by the CRP.

hide captionA mallard's nest is tucked away in tall grass in a North Dakota field rented by the Conservation Reserve Program.

Dan Charles, NPR

More From Dan Charles

An abandoned church in North Dakota.

hide captionAn abandoned church in North Dakota. Critics of the CRP blame the program for putting millions of farm acres in North Dakota out of service, which they say led businesses to shutter and young people to move away.

Dan Charles, NPR
CRP Map i i

hide captionThis map shows farmland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program as of April 2004. Each green dot represents 500 acres.

CRP Map

This map shows farmland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program as of April 2004. Each green dot represents 500 acres.

This year, instead of crops, 34 million acres of American farmland will produce tall grass, pheasants and ducks. That's thanks to the Conservation Reserve Program, a USDA program to protect soil, streams and wildlife habitat on farms that accounts for about 8 percent of all farm subsidies in 2005. The CRP has had successes, but as Dan Charles reports for All Things Considered, the program is also controversial.

Web Extra: For NPR.org, Dan Charles looks at how the 20-year-old CRP program works:

It's easy to tell what land in the Dakotas is part of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Those fields have no cattle grazing in them, and they aren't plowed or growing crops. Instead, they're filled with tall grass. Often, you'll see piles of rocks along the edges of those fields, a tell-tale sign that someone once plowed those fields and grew wheat there.

Such fields cover about 5 million acres of North and South Dakota. Nationwide, there are 34 million acres in the conservation reserve, an area equal to about 7 percent of U.S. land that's planted in crops. That's an area bigger than the state of New York.

The CRP costs taxpayers almost $2 billion a year — this year, that amounts to about 8 percent of all farm subsidies. Congress established the program in 1985. It's the oldest and largest of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's efforts to protect soil, water and wildlife in farming areas.

The program's goals have shifted over the years. "The CRP started out as an erosion-control program. It's evolved into a wildlife and water-quality program," says Robert Harkrader, a district conservationist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Coffee County, Kan.

Farmers offer to enroll their land in the CRP. It has to be land where crops previously grew. If the USDA accepts the offer, the farmer gets paid a fee, roughly equivalent to the rental value of the land, to stop growing crops on it. The USDA gives priority to land where halting cultivation offers environmental benefits: Less erosion of soil, runoff into streams, or valuable habitat for wildlife.

In some areas, CRP land has delivered real benefits. In the "prairie pothole" section of the Dakotas, a prime breeding ground for waterfowl, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says CRP land has been the key to a dramatic recovery in duck populations. In Kansas, it has slowed the decline of the bobwhite quail and the lesser prairie chicken. And it's one reason why Dust Bowl conditions haven't returned to the Great Plains in recent years, despite droughts that were as bad as in the 1930s.

Yet the CRP is not universally loved. Businesses that sell farm products don't like it, because taking land out of production reduces demand for fertilizer, pesticides, tractors and fuel. Farmers often confess to feeling odd about a program that pays them not to practice their profession. And environmentalists say the program falls far short of its potential. There would be more benefit to the environment, they say, if the USDA could focus on particular rivers or wildlife habitats and convince farmers in those areas to enroll large blocks of land in the CRP.

Farmers, though, often have other things in mind.

"Most of the landowners who come in and sign up don't really ask, 'What is my payment going to be?'" says Harkrader. They say, 'I've got this problem area, I don't know what to do with it. It's an odd shape. It's out of the way. It doesn't fit my equipment.' They're looking to get rid of their problem areas." — Dan Charles

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