High Cost of Land, Crops Taking Bite Out of Conservation Acres

By Orlan Love, Reporter

DES MOINES, Iowa - The "corn rush" continues to shrink acreage enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest boons to the environment in the nation's history.

In an era of high farm land and commodity prices, many farmers cannot justify the financial sacrifices entailed in idling suitable cropland for the sake of conservation, said Tom Fuller, Iowa coordinator for Pheasants Forever, a leading CRP advocate.

Grid tiling, grubbing out trees and shrubs, draining wetlands, converting grass to row crops — "it's all indicative of the 'corn rush' to farm every square inch of land," Fuller said.

The "corn rush" is reflected in the nation's nearly 2.4 million acre net loss in the Conservation Reserve Program, following a signup period that ended in April.

In Iowa, expiring CRP contracts exceeded renewals and new program entries by more than 76,000 acres.

With CRP contracts on more than 175,000 acres expiring this year, Iowa landowners submitted offers of 105,000 acres, with contracts accepted on 99,684 acres.

"I was hoping we would replace most of the expiring acres, But given crop prices, I'm pretty happy with what we got," said Todd Bogenschutz, the Department of Natural Resources biologist who manages a pheasant population shrinking even faster than the CRP acreage needed to sustain it.

Fuller said conservationists don't blame farmers, who are well within their rights to maximize profits.

"Government conservation payments are just not competitive with cash rental rates for farmland," he said.

Iowa's 2012 statewide average cash rental rate for corn and soybean ground is $252 per acre, according to Iowa State University's most recent cash rental rates survey. That's up $38 per acre from the previous year, an 18 percent increase largely attributable to the continued strong market for the corn and soybeans produced on the land.

In 2006, before the run-up in commodity prices, Iowa farmland rented for an average of $135 per acre.

In Iowa, which has much of the nation's most valuable soil, the average CRP rental rate in 2011 was $164 per acre — well above the 2011 national average CRP rental rate of $48 per acre.

States in the pheasant belt, which happens to coincide with the grain belt, lost nearly 2 million CRP acres at the conclusion of the recent signup.

Five states with annual pheasant harvests typically larger than Iowa's — North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska — lost a combined 1.2 million acres of CRP.

That bodes ill not only for water quality, soil conservation and biological diversity but also for the future of pheasant hunting, Fuller said.

In South Dakota, the state that supplanted Iowa as the nation's pheasant capital more than a decade ago, extreme land use pressure is altering the landscape in a way inimical to pheasants and other wildlife, according to Fuller.

"Eastern South Dakota will soon see a steep decline in pheasant numbers," he said.

Obviously, with 100,000 Iowa acres re-enrolled or initially enrolled during the recent signup, some landowners are not caught up in the corn rush.

John Rummelhart Jr., 57, of Iowa City, who recently re-enrolled some CRP acres and enrolled some other ground in the program for the first time, said doing so "does not make sense on a straight-line financial basis."

Rummelhart said he is fortunate to be in a position where he does not need to wring the last dollar from his land.

Much of his reward, he said, comes in seeing wildlife flourish in the diverse natural community that CRP helps sustain.

"I'm just trying to do my own little part to maintain natural harmony and connections," he said.

While the corn rush is squeezing CRP acreage, so, too, are federal budget constraints. A new farm bill working its way through the Senate would reduce the CRP acreage cap from 32 million to 30 million next year, with further reductions to 25 million acres by 2017.

"It's inevitable that CRP acres will go down as we try to balance the budget. We don't like it, but we'll take what we can get," Pheasants Forever's Fuller said.

The DNR's Bogenschutz said many conservationists had feared the CRP cap would be even lower.

"We're pretty happy with a 25-million acre cap," he said.
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