CRP at 25; what’s the future?

MPR photo Dan Gunderson

The federal Conservation Reserve Program marks its 25th year this month. The program was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

The idea was to pay farmers to stop growing crops on poor quality farmland susceptible to erosion and plant grasses or trees instead.

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Minnesota is among the leading states in CRP enrollment. Recent USDA data show Minnesota is sixth in acres enrolled with 1,642,877, fifth in payments with $106,349,155 in rental payments to landowners and third in number of farms enrolled in the program with 32,956.

The conservation acres are mostly in the northwest corner of the state where 5 counties account for nearly 40 percent of the CRP acres in Minnesota.

Many of those acres could return to active farmland in the next five years as farmer contracts with the CRP program end. By 2015 about 50 percent of the conservation acres in Minnesota could be cropland again.

Some of that land will likely be re-enrolled in the program. USDA is maintaining about 30 million acres of CRP nationwide.

But if crop prices are strong, and rent for crop land is high, land owners have a financial incentive to get out of the CRP program and earn better money from crop production.

There are many studies showing the environmental and wildlife benefits of CRP. All of those idled acres reduce water pollution and create habitat that increases the population of many wildlife species.

There are also many studies showing CRP negatively affects the economy of rural communities, especially in those counties with a lot of CRP acres. When the land is idled farmers aren't spending money at Main Street businesses.

It will be interesting to see what choices landowners make in the next five years, and what incentives Congress includes in the 2012 farm bill to encourage conservation.