Fence Sitting on Farm Bill Puts Conservation Programs in Limbo
PIERRE, S.D. – The future of nutrition assistance in the stalled 2018 Farm Bill has dominated news headlines, but Midwest farmers and ranchers are equally concerned about what will happen if conservation programs are not renewed.
Programs in jeopardy include the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays landowners to enroll some of their land, providing they plant and maintain grass or other wildlife habitat.
The program is in limbo after a U.S. Senate and House conference committee failed to agree on a final version of a new farm bill.
Dave Nomsen is vice president for government affairs with Pheasants Forever, a conservation organization focused on pheasant conservation. He says the voluntary program has protected fragile or marginal crop lands for more than 30 years.
"Farmers, I think, are getting a lot smarter at putting a pencil to a paper and really taking a look as to what's the best use of those lands, and that means more lands are probably better off longer-term in some sort of a conservation program," he states.
Government officials say current CRP contracts will not be affected by expiration of the farm bill, but no new lands will be enrolled until a new bill is passed or the old bill is extended.
The Conservation Reserve Program has provided many South Dakota farmers and ranchers with a source of income, even while commodity prices for corn and soybeans have declined and costs for seed, fertilizer, fuel and labor have risen.
Lands set aside for conservation also provide habitat for ring-necked pheasants, a major contributor to the state's tourism industry.
Nomsen says at the same time the program's future is unknown, he's witnessed some of the highest demand for conservation in decades.
"Regardless of whether a farmer is doing this for water quality improvements or he's doing it for soil erosion improvements or maybe he's just doing it to put a few more roosters, a few more quail on that landscape doesn't really matter, but the programs benefit all of those various interests at the same time," he states.
South Dakota's number of CRP acres peaked in 2007 at 1.5 million, with about 950,000 acres now enrolled.