What's a Farm Without Fallow Fields?

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Amidst rising food prices, farmers are using more of their land. Fallow fields help protect wildlife habitats and keep soil healthy, according to the National Wildlife Federation's Julie Sibbing. Will there be consequences to this new approach?


Farm the best and conserve the rest. That's an old saying among farmers. It's advice for how much land to harvest. The U.S. government agrees. It even pays farmers to keep some of their land fallow. Not growing crops helps prevent soil erosion and it protects animal habitats. But recently with rising food prices and a tight economy, farmers are putting conservation land back to work. Julie Sibbing is with the National Wildlife Federation. Thanks for talking to us, Julie, and if you can tell us about this program, it's called the Conservation Reserve Program. It's voluntary. How much land does it usually keep fallow?

Ms. JULIE SIBBING (Senior Program Manager, National Wildlife Federation): Well, right now we have about 34 million acres of land, and that's down significantly from just a few years ago. We've lost about four million acres in the last couple of years due to those increased pressures to plant more corn and to plant more soy beans, as crop prices have grown.

COHEN: And where is that acreage? What states is this happening in?

Ms. SIBBING: A lot of the land coming out is typically in the corn belt because that's, you know, the land that most people are growing corn on, and they want to try to expand and take advantage of the record high commodity prices right now. But a lot of it is in the northern Great Plains, a very, very dry area, and we're very concerned about this land going back into production.

COHEN: Now, can you breakdown the numbers for us? If you're a farmer, how much could you make by keeping the land fallow, and how does that compare to what you could earn if you grew crops on it?

Ms. SIBBING: Well, it's really variable. The Conservation Reserve Program is supposed to operate by paying people at what they call an agricultural rental rate, or what you would pay somebody to rent their agricultural land to farm it. This is adjusted, however, at every county level. They will have a committee of folks that will set how much they will pay for a farmer to take that land out of production. It's supposed to be competitive. Unfortunately, those rates have just not been keeping pace, so most people will say, well, I can get, you know, so and so dollars per acre if I reenroll this land into the conservation Reserve Program, but, you know, I think I could probably grow crops on it and make a lot more, so I think that's the calculus a lot of people have been making.

COHEN: And what are the environmental consequences if farmers start growing again?

Ms. SIBBING: Well, there's a lot of environmental consequences. The thing about the Conservation Reserve Program is a lot of that land is what they call highly erodible land. So, without a really serious soil conservation plan, a lot of that will erode steadily into our streams, and along with it are all the fertilizers they put on the land to grow crops. And there's at least three species that I know of right now that are not listed on the endangered species list only because there's enough habitat right now on Conservation Reserve Program lands to keep those species viable. If those areas start losing a lot of CRP, these birds, including the different species of the sage-grouse and Prairie Chicken, will probably have to be placed on the endangered species list.

COHEN: This program, this conservation program, is part of the Farm Bill that we've been hearing so much about lately. What's the status of this program now?

Ms. SIBBING: We think this week they might finally put the finishing touches on the overall Farm Bill. We're hearing it's not really a rosy picture for the Conservation Reserve Program in that right now there can be up to 39 million acres enrolled in that program before they will cap it and say you can't enroll any more. We're down to about 34 million acres, but they're going to take it down to even lower, and say that maximum amount that you can enroll will be 32 million acres is what we believe will be the final result.

COHEN: Julie Sibbing is the National Wildlife Federation's senior program manager. Thanks so much, Julie.

Ms. SIBBING: Thank you.

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