When President Obama released his multi-TRILLION dollar budget earlier this year, it included an increase to USDA's bank account of nearly 10 percent. Included were bumps to the supplemental nutrition assistance program -- more commonly known as food stamps -- and programs designed to help farmers restore and preserve wildlife habitat. A long-time staple among these programs is the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. As many can attest, the enrolled acres benefit both farmer and wildlife alike.
More than 20-thousand sportsmen and women gathered recently at the annual Pheasant Fest convention in Iowa's capitol city of Des Moines. U.S. congressmen and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack were in attendance to boost support for conservation programs and wildlife habitat. The gathering comes as a growing chorus of lawmakers and farmers question the future balance of conservation and agriculture in rural America.
Farmer: "When are we going to realize that farmers want to be better stewards of the land? We just need the tools to do that."
Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa: "We have to find the right balance between the farmer that can sell prime cropland at $7000 an acre and enrolling that land in CRP for a fraction of that price."
Lynn Tjeerdsma, Farm Service Agency: "We know there is pressure on landowners but government policy in this next farm bill could alleviate that."
Secretary Vilsack, speaking before hundreds of Pheasants Forever members, proclaimed USDA's continued commitment to conservation programs.
Sec. Tom Vilsack, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture: "We have a host of important programs focused on public and private working land conservation, but none, and I emphasize, none is as important as the Conservation Reserve Program. For hunters in prime pheasant country a 4% increase in CRP acreage leads to a 22% increase in pheasant counts."
The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980's. The USDA-administered program pays landowners to idle farmland in an effort to prevent soil erosion and bolster wildlife habitat. But multi-year CRP contracts have rapidly expired in recent years. More than 4 million acres of CRP-funded habitat will expire in 2010 followed by an additional 4 million in 2011.
Speaking to sportsmen this week, new CRP signups gave Vilsack his largest applause line.
Sec. Tom Vilsack, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture: "President Obama's budget recently submitted to Congress assumes that this year we will have and I can guarantee we will have a general signup for the first time since 2006."
Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, also plans to shift 300,000 additional acres originally designated to help ducks, quail, and pheasants into the CRP program.
But USDA's latest conservation efforts may not quell concerns in the Midwestern Grain Belt. Wildlife habitat in row-crop heavy states has dropped precipitously along with pheasant populations. Meanwhile, the federal ceiling of 31 million CRP acres, set in the 2008 farm bill, has remained unchanged.
Critics argue the demand for increased food production, animal feed, and corn-based ethanol have rekindled the "fence-row to fence-row" adage of prior generations.
Sec. Tom Vilsack, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture: "There's a concern about this but again I think what you're seeing is a moderation of crop prices. Some indication that maybe those prices may be moderating and therefore maybe it won't be quite as threatening as it was in the last couple years when you had eight dollar corn."
A drop in wildlife habitat may go unnoticed in non-sportsmen circles but hunters contribute a USDA-estimated $67 billion to the country's economy – some spent in small communities throughout rural America.
Dave Nomsen, a key Washington liaison for Pheasants Forever on Capitol Hill, acknowledged a changing economic landscape could limit funding of conservation efforts going forward.
Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever: "But CRP has a proven track record and lawmakers know what they're dealing with. I think we have a strong case to be made."
According to USDA officials, the new CRP signups will begin on March 15.