Nearly 20 years ago, farmers got a new way to make money off their land. The Conservation Reserve Program or CRP, was designed as a way to take highly erodible land out of production.
Farmers sign a 10 or 15 year contract and get paid to leave the land in natural grasses. Today, nearly 37 million acres are enrolled in the United States.
South Dakota State University Agricultural Economist Larry Janssen, says many farmers use the Conservation Reserve Program as a risk management tool because it's a guaranteed payment.
"Most of the CRP land is held by persons who the CRP land fits into their operations if the contracts expire. They're making decision based on management of it as agricultural land," says Janssen.
Since farming is a business, Janssen says farmers look for ways to make the most money off their land. This year, for many, that may mean taking land out of conservation programs and planting it again and that's not something farmers want to talk about.
None of those contacted for this story were willing to discuss whether they were planning to cut back on their conservation acres. But someone's making that decision since 17 percent of South Dakota's CRP acres were not renewed this year -- that's nearly 300,000 acres. Nationally only six percent of the acres expired.
South Dakota officials say the state needs about 1.5 million acres to sit idle in order to have a positive effect on wildlife populations. Ag Economist Larry Janssen says because there isn't a final farm bill, farmers don't know how much money the federal government will pay per acre for idle land.
"If they're going to keep it at 1.5 million acres they can't do it with their existing budget because they're going to have to pay more because farmers won't re-enroll," says Janssen. "Unless there's other incentives for enrolling besides just that annual CRP payment."
The government pays about $46 an acre for land enrolled in the conservation reserve program. Farmers could get as much as $100 an acre to rent out the same field for planting. U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) wants the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer more financial incentives and contract options to keep as many acres enrolled as possible.
"Congress is going to have to apply pressure on the USDA in implementing this program to make sure they structure it in a way to make sure the payment rates are competitive with actually cropping some of these same lands," says Thune.
The USDA runs the farm programs but Congress has oversight. Sen. Thune says conservation reserve acres are the reason South Dakota has a successful pheasant hunting industry. And it's a big one with a $150 million economic impact. Losing wildlife habitat is a big concern for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. Senior wildlife biologist Bill Smith says this year had the largest pheasant population in 40 years. He says 2008 will be a different story.
"We're likely not going to see the same type of pheasant response because we're dealing with 300,000 acres less of potential pheasant nesting and brood habitat," says Smith.
Smith says the GF&P offers cash payments to farmers who open CRP land to public hunting.
South Dakota State University Ag Economist, Larry Janssen, says CRP land is the cover for nesting birds but for the habitat to be successful, there has to be food close by... like corn fields.
"A lot of the benefits of CRP by itself are really a function of where CRP is in relation to other crop land or already grazed range land and what the condition is of those range land and crop land are. A lot of the hunting benefits of CRP are only there because of adjacent crop land," says Janssen.
Janssen says even more conservation reserve contracts are up for renewal in the next two years. He's convinced farmers will make decisions that are best for their business. He says the only land that's really likely to stay enrolled in conservation reserve program are buffers that protect rivers and streams because they're not easy to farm.