Some worry the long-term price is too high. Others welcome the switch, saying it could hold down food prices.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, a former North Dakota governor, said he plans to make a decision in August or September on whether to allow "penalty-free release of land" for the 2009 crop year.
CRP, which started in 1985, doled out about $1.9 billion to landowners last year, said John Johnson, deputy administrator for farm programs for the Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency. It pays a nationwide average of about $50 per acre annually.
In mid-April, there were 34.6 million acres enrolled in CRP, down about 2 million from a year ago, Johnson said. Contracts on another 1 million acres are set to expire this year, he said. The program currently is authorized at 39.2 million acres, or about 10 percent of U.S. crop land.
Scott McLeod, a biologist for the conservation group Ducks Unlimited based in Bismarck, likens the exodus from the program to a jailbreak.
"I do not blame farmers or producers one bit -they're running a business," McLeod said. "These guys do want to do conservation, but they want to be paid for it."
McLeod said the biggest loser in the loss of CRP land will be wildlife. "This isn't just about hunters -this is an issue for everybody. Wildlife is a barometer for our environment," he said.
Johnson, of the federal Farm Services Agency, estimated about 130,000 acres that were under contract were taken out of the program this year, for which farmers will have to reimburse the government.