Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” When the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was introduced in 1985, soil erosion exceeded more than three billion tons per year, wetlands were being drained, water quality was deteriorating and wildlife populations were under stress due to loss of habitat. Administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) along with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and state forestry agencies, the voluntary program grants agricultural landowners the financial incentive for their highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to transition from row-crop production back to natural grass or tree cover. To date, 31.3 million acres and nearly 738,000 contracts are enrolled in the CRP program.
“CRP is the largest private land voluntary conservation program in this country’s history,” says Matthew Ponish, acting director of the Conservation and Environ-mental Programs Division for the FSA. “It allows voluntary participation by land-owners…Most notable is the improvement to water quality that the program has produced over the last 27 years since its inception.”
Keeping Fertilizer in Check
Fertilizer and farm runoff in the U.S. leads to an annual ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico known as a “dead zone.” In a dead zone, algae blooms multiply due to excessive nitrogen and phosphorus entering the water. This algae growth sucks out the water’s oxygen—a process called “hypoxia”—killing all marine life in its wake. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the dead zone that forms each year in the Gulf threatens commercial and recreational Gulf fisheries valued at over $600 million. CRP halts hypoxia by limiting the amount of fertilizer farms are using.
“In fiscal year 2011, we estimated roughly 623 million pounds less nitrogen and 124 million pounds less phosphorus in agriculture due to CRP,” Ponish says.
Wildlife and Clean Air
In addition to preventing dead zones, the CRP allows wildlife space to return. “If you add grass, you have pheasants,” says Dave Nomsen of Pheasants Forever. “Pheasants and other wildlife populations literally exploded when CRP came on the landscape in 1985. And in the fall each year, you’re going to see rural communities where it’s hard to find hotel rooms; the restaurants are full; the fields are full during the day. Pheasant hunting is actually a billion-dollar industry, so it’s a tremendous economic boost to rural America.” Agricultural air pollution also tapers off once nature is allowed to run its course, improving the health of the surrounding community and beyond.
“In terms of carbon sequestration, we have some rough estimates that in 2011, CRP-enrolled acreage sequestered roughly 50 million metric tons of CO2, in addition to reducing fuel use and reducing nitrous oxide emissions from applying fertilizer,” Ponish says. “So there are not just on-the-ground direct benefits associated with CRP in terms of planting and creating habitat—the reduction in fuel use and emissions alone has provided a significant impact for this program for participants and non-participants alike.”
Despite its numerous ecological benefits, the CRP faces an uncertain future. This past January, Representative Martha Roby (R-AL) filed the Preserving Marginal Lands and Protecting Farming Act, H.R. 349, which aims to reduce the overall number of acres held in CRP nationwide by 24 million acres over four years. Roby argues that CRP has tended to enroll high-quality and otherwise highly productive land at a time when farmland is becoming more scarce due to conditions like drought.
“We need to apply smart erosion prevention and conservation techniques on marginal lands, but using taxpayer money to encourage landowners to let quality cropland lay dormant doesn’t make sense,” Roby said in a release. “This legislation restores common sense to the Conservation Reserve Program and saves taxpayers’ money.”
In a letter sent to the House Committee on Agriculture, National Grain and Feed Association President Randy Gordon urged passage of the bill. “We’re extremely pleased that Congresswoman Roby continues her strong leadership on the importance of right-sizing the CRP in a way that preserves its environmental, water-quality and wildlife benefits, while enabling good-quality farmland to exit the program to help the United States remain competitive in response to strong demand for grains and oilseeds,” Gordon said.