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To Plant or Not on Set-Aside Farmland?

July 14, 2008

By Leslie Reed, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Jul. 14–LINCOLN — Midlands farm groups are at odds over whether farmers should be allowed to till environmentally sensitive Conservation Reserve Program land to plant corn and soybeans.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer is set to make a decision “shortly” on the idea, spokesman Chris Connelly said Friday.

“The secretary is weighing all possible options in dealing with the rise in feed prices, and among these options is a careful review of the Conservation Reserve Program,” Connelly said.

Environmental groups, including the Nebraska Wildlife Federation and the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, oppose the idea. The Nebraska Pork Producers Association and Nebraska Cattlemen, whose members are reeling because of high feed costs, are pushing hard for it.

“We’re very much in support,” said Larry Sitzman, executive director of the pork producers group. “By alleviating some of the feed needs for cattle producers, it could free up some corn for us.”

But Mace Hack, director of the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, said such a policy change could damage Nebraska’s soil, water and wildlife, including its hunting industry.

“We clearly have some pressures on in society for food and fuel, and I recognize those,” Hack said. “But (the Conservation Reserve Program) helps support healthy wildlife populations, it protects watersheds and it protects soils. It’s a very critical piece of our environmental program.”

Established in 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers rent to idle land for wildlife habitat, under 10- to 15-year contracts.

In Nebraska, about 1.25 million acres are enrolled in the program. In Iowa, it’s about 2 million acres.

Lavaine Moore, a program conservation specialist with the Farm Service Agency in Lincoln, said farmers who take their land out of the program early must repay “every penny” they have received under the contracts. While rental payment amounts vary, a typical payment might be about $125 per acre per year.

So far, broad-based ag groups such as the Farm Bureau and the Farmers Union, whose members include grain farmers as well as livestock producers, are not supporting the idea.

The Iowa Farm Bureau is reviewing the issue but will not take a position before this fall, said Mark Salvador, the group’s national policy adviser. Rob Robertson, government liaison for the Nebraska Farm Bureau, said his group has decided for the time being that it will not support opening Conservation Reserve Program land to farming.

Planting season is past and it’s impractical to open the ground this year, Robertson said. However, the matter should be discussed by farm groups, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Congress before planting next year.

Lodgepole, Neb., wheat farmer Doug Schmale, with about 350 acres in the program, is not sure whether he would seek an early release from the program if it were available. His contracts have two or three years remaining.

“With some (acres), perhaps yeah,” he said. “Some of the land in CRP is so rough that CRP is the best use for it.”

Schmale said he’d like to see a program to free up his farmable acres but allow even longer-term contracts for the most fragile land.

Schafer already has issued two orders to allow farmers to harvest hay or allow cattle to graze on some conservation lands without penalty.

A May order, based on “critical feed needs,” would allow haying and grazing on program acres beginning in mid- to late July, after birds finish nesting. A June order allowed emergency cattle grazing in areas hit by spring flooding.

But last week, a federal judge in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order to block the May order. The merits of the case are to be considered this week.

The Nebraska Wildlife Federation joined the National Wildlife Federation in filing that legal challenge, said Duane Hovorka of Elmwood, Neb., an official with the national federation.

The USDA needs to conduct an environmental review before opening conservation program acres merely because of high feed costs, he said.

Hovorka said the wildlife group would have similar concerns about opening conservation program acres to row crops.

“Most of the land in the program now is environmentally marginal — it’s highly erodible land, steep hillsides and soils that should not have been farmed in the first place,” he said.

Michael Kelsey, executive vice president of the Nebraska Cattlemen, said his group has been pushing to open Conservation Reserve Program land to crops since at least last year.

The organization recognizes that many such acres should not be farmed because they are fragile, he said. But some acres could be farmed safely.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, met with Schafer last month and urged him to allow farmers to plant Conservation Reserve Program acres this year. He pointed to flood devastation of corn and soybean acres.

Other Midlands lawmakers urged a careful consideration of the matter.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, noted that Conservation Reserve Program stream buffers — strips of grassland along waterways — helped mitigate the damage during this spring’s flooding in Iowa.

“I am concerned about allowing acres in the Conservation Reserve Program to be released without penalty,” he said. “If Secretary Schafer uses his authority to allow a penalty-free exit from CRP, he should do it very cautiously.”

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said the USDA had yet to consult with the Senate Agriculture Committee about what may be proposed.

“The highly erodible acres should be left in CRP,” Nelson said. “But we obviously have a need for more corn for corn-based ethanol if we’re going to increase production.”

–Contact the writer: 402-473-9581, leslie.reed@owh.com

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