RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As this year comes to a close, we're looking back over what's happened during 2013 through numbers. Today, we're focusing on 1.6 million, as in 1.6 million acres. That's how much land was removed this year from a program that pays farmers not to farm. It's an area about the size of Delaware. Most of this land will now produce crops like corn or wheat. As NPR's Dan Charles reports, the change signals the shifting economic tides transforming America's landscape.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: If you go driving through America's farm country, especially the northern plains, you'll see large fields covered with grass. The federal government is paying for that grass. It's called the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. The U.S. Department of Agriculture pays farmers to plant native grasses or sometimes trees on that land instead of crops like corn or wheat. Because when you bring back a little bit of prairie, you get all kinds of environmental benefits. Like ducks.
RON REYNOLDS: There she goes. She flew off the nest. Heard us coming.
CHARLES: This is from a visit to North Dakota almost nine years ago. Ron Reynolds, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is leading the way through a field of tall grass; a CRP field. He pulls back some of that grass and shows me a nest with seven duck eggs.
REYNOLDS: The eggs are warm. You can feel on the eggs. She's just starting to incubate.
CHARLES: At that time, Reynolds was ecstatic about how CRP fields were helping to bring back duck populations. And Carter Johnson, a professor of ecology at South Dakota State University in Brookings, South Dakota, says ducks are only the start of it.
CARTER JOHNSON: Goodness. There's thousands of species that live in grasslands, including several hundred species of higher plants.
CHARLES: Also, turning a cornfield into a grassland keeps soil from washing away.
JOHNSON: With those deep roots that grasses have and thick thatch and so on, the water has a hard time getting a hold of the soil.
CHARLES: Land in CRP means cleaner water, less fertilizer runoff, more carbon stored in the soil. Now, back when Reynolds was showing me those duck eggs, there were 34 million acres in the CRP - an area as big as the state of New York. In recent years, though, the conservation reserve has shrunk by more than 25 percent, including those 1.6 million acres that farmers took out of the program this past year. That's partly because Congress has cut funding for the program. But there's a more important reason: high grain prices. Farmers have been making a lot of money recently growing corn, soybeans and wheat. They're bidding up prices for land, and landowners are cashing in. In southwestern Iowa near the town of Stanton, the owners of about 60 acres decided to take it out of the CRP. They rented it instead to a farmer, Mark Peterson.
MARK PETERSON: And they felt that it would make income for them, renting it out, than it would being in the CRP.
CHARLES: So, it sort of makes financial sense to take it out.
PETERSON: Yes, it did. Unfortunately, but it does.
CHARLES: Why do you say unfortunately?
PETERSON: Well, it is fragile ground.
CHARLES: Fragile because it's on a hillside. Parts of it are very steep. The soil could easily wash away. Peterson says he's going to be careful with that land. He grew soybeans on it this year but he tried to disturb the soil as little as possible and he keeps it covered with vegetation. Carter Johnson, the ecologist at South Dakota State University, says the shrinking Conservation Reserve is only part of what's happening. Farmers are ripping up other grasslands, too; native prairie that never was plowed. Planting crops instead.
JOHNSON: I've seen things I never thought I would see here in South Dakota. With these land prices going up, there actually are people are out there with bobcats and front end loaders, pulling out the rocks in hundreds of acres of land that's been in pasture all these years
CHARLES: He says when you take all this land and plant wheat on it or corn, it just has to be a bad thing for water quality, soil erosion, and wildlife. The man who's in charge of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Environmental Conservation programs, Jason Weller, says the shrinking CRP is a cause for concern.
JASON WELLER: But I think it's important that there's a lot of other approaches that we can take to manage not just the soil and water, but also these wildlife populations.
CHARLES: His agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has experts in almost every county, working with farmers, providing advice. For instance, land that's coming out of the CRP doesn't have to go into crops, Weller says. Some farmers may want to use it to graze cattle.
WELLER: We have assistance we can provide to them, so we can keep that land in grass.
CHARLES: And Weller says the fact is those high grain prices are the result of growing demand for more food and biofuels. Farmers are responding to that demand. Most of them also want to protect soil, streams and wildlife. The difficult thing is trying to do both. Dan Charles, NPR News.
MARTIN: What number tells your story this year? Join our conversation on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram or Facebook. The hashtag is NPRNOTY for Number of the Year.