ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Corn farmers have hit the jackpot. Prices of corn have been rising steadily. Then earlier this week, President Bush, in his State of the Union speech, called for using more corn-based ethanol to wean the country off its oil dependence. Corn prices are now even higher.

So come spring, farmers will likely try to cash in by planting more corn. Well, that worries conservationists. This craze for corn, they say, could destroy wildlife habitats on many farms.

Iowa's Public Radio's Joyce Russell reports.

JOYCE RUSSELL: Doug Holiday stands in a grassy field on land he farms in southern Iowa. Tall prairie grasses with colorful names, such as switchgrass and the big blue stem, cover the slightly hilly terrain. This used to be a cornfield. But lately, through a federal program encouraging conservation, Holiday has been getting paid not to farm here.

Mr. DOUG HOLIDAY (Corn Farmer): This land is gently rolling land. It was classified as highly erodable land. That made it eligible for CRP.

RUSSELL: CRP stands for the Conservation Reserve Program, which takes what's considered fragile land out of production to protect the soil and prevent chemical runoff. But the land that Doug Holiday enrolled in the program is in for a change. When planting season gets underway in a few months, he will mow down this grass, kill off what's left with herbicides, and prepare the soil for planting once again.

Mr. HOLIDAY: It's currently in CRP. At the moment, it is more profitable to take it out.

RUSSELL: What with corn prices higher than they've been for years. Doug Holiday says he can take out the grass and plant grain without disturbing the erodable soil. But wildlife enthusiasts hate to see all that wildlife cover cut down.

(Soundbite of convention)

Here at the Annual Convention Of Pheasants Forever in Des Moines, vendors display the latest in firearms and hunting regalia. Hunters here are upset over threats to the Conservation Reserve Program, which they credit for the resurgence in pheasant populations. David Nomsen is with Pheasants Forever in Minnesota.

Mr. DAVID NOMSEN (Pheasants Forever): It's a huge topic here at Pheasant Fest, because you know, we're talking about - we'll probably put 25,000 people through here in the next couple of days. And I'll guarantee, every one of them has a story about pheasants and CRP lands.

RUSSELL: Nomsen's concerns go beyond having fewer birds to hunt. He's also worried about water quality. As farmers leave the program, he hopes they keep acres along waterways planted in grass to minimize runoff. And he hopes Congress better funds the program when they draft the next farm bill this year. But that maybe wishful thinking.

The American Farm Bureau Federation recently passed a resolution calling for an end to taking whole farms out of production, unless every field needs protection. Others want a lower cap on total idled acres.

Mr. KENDELL KEITH (National Grain and Feed Association): We really need every acre that we can get.

RUSSELL: That's Kendell Keith with the National Grain and Feed Association, which represents ethanol producers and grain elevators.

Mr. KEITH: Some of the land is very farmable. Probably 17 to 20 million acres could be farmed if it was available, but there are very stiff penalties for removing land out of the program and putting it back in production.

RUSSELL: So the trade group will urge the USDA to ease penalties on farmers who break their agreements to idle the land. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. He says when it comes to the conservation reserve provisions, writing the next farm bill will be a balancing act.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa; Chair, Agriculture Committee): Is there some CRP land that could be planted with corn? Sure. Well, there are some counties in Iowa that are not very erodable. They've got some land in CRP, but you have to be very careful about that. You could argue that if you took all that land out of production and put it into corn, the corn prices would fall to 50 cents a bushel. And we can't have that either.

RUSSELL: And Senator Harkin says he's a pheasant hunter, too. Still, at over $3.50 a bushel, more than double last year's price, corn at the moment is the king of commodities. So wildlife enthusiasts are competing with the clamor for more and more of the precious grain.

For NPR News, I'm Joyce Russell in Ames, Iowa.

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