Conservation programs began during the farm crisis of the 1980s less as a way to protect the environment and more as a way to get money into the rural economy.
The federal Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to take marginal land out of production. Farmers sign a contract, promising not to plow the land for 10 to 15 years. They plant native grasses, or allow trees to grow up.
About two million acres in Minnesota are managed for conservation. But many of those contracts will expire in the next few years. As much as 600,000 acres could leave the conservation program and go back to cropland.
Conservation improves water quality and provides habitat for wildlife, says Kevin Lines, conservation easement Mmanager for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. Many projects restore wetlands.
"A healthy wetland...removes nitrates, removes phosphorus, keeps the water clean flowing into our lakes and rivers. These things provide the public with a huge number of benefits that are difficult to put a cost on or a benefit factor on."
In the late 1990s, Minnesota used federal and state money to convert 100,000 acres in the Minnesota River watershed into conservation land. The effect was to make the river a little cleaner by preventing pesticides and fertilizer from running in.
Back then, corn and soybean prices were low.
By last June, Lines' goal was to add another 120,000 acres to the reserve program. But farmers would only commit to 8,000 acres.
Lines is frustrated, but he understands their decisions.
"The landowner has to make a living today, they want to send their kids to college tomorrow, so programs have to be competitive. We can't get all these public benefits from private landowners without some cost to society."
It's not just grain prices going up; the value of land is increasing. And farmers say the conservation programs don't offer them enough to set their land aside.
Two years ago Bill Grimm, who raises corn, soybeans and hogs in Renville County in southwestern Minnesota, signed up to put about 30 acres of steeply rolling land into conservation reserve.
But before he got around to planting the wild grass seed, things changed.
"During that winter of '06 and '07 the commodity prices substantially went up, and being I hadn't seeded it yet, there was an option to opt out, and I went ahead and did that. There was a small penalty I guess to do that, but with the commodity prices, I figured I'd be better off farming it."
Even with reduced yields during a dry year, Grimm made about $300 an acre profit after expenses. The conservation program would have paid just over $100 an acre.
Not everybody is opting out. Guste Blad, who farms in Renville and Kandiyohi Counties put about 100 acres of his 1000 acre operation in reserve. He likes having pheasants and deer around, and he likes keeping his soil on the land and out of the drainage ditch. "And the dollars -- it pays quite well for land that maybe isn't as good, up next to the ditch bank is lot of clay, so the land isn't as productive as it would be out in the middle of field. I think dollar for dollar it's a good investment."
Renville County is a top agricultural producer, and also has more land in conservation than any other county.
Tom Kalahar, with the Soil and Water Conservation District in Renville County, is worried that if Minnesota loses a lot of conservation acres, the state could face a water quality disaster.
"We bring all that marginal, fragile farm land back into crop production, and corn crop production which is very agriculturally intense as far as pesticides, and fertilizers, and erosion-prone, I mean that's why it was in the program in the first place. We bring all that back into crop production and we're going go backwards very, very, very fast."
State officials estimate only a third of farmland along water bodies is managed for conservation.
That means there's a lot of potential to preserve sensitive lands. One federal agriculture official says those are the lands that newer conservation programs will target