Young bucks - 35 years and under - might not know who Earl Butz was. But he was the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture who championed "fence row to fence row" farming from 1971 to 1974 - the last period in American history that food prices climbed high enough to generate political heat. And America's farmers responded to his challenge by doing just that - and set the stage for prolonged low grain prices.
Subsequently, Conservation Reserve Program was born in 1985 as a means to pay farmers to take land out of production, raise grain prices and improve soil and water quality. CRP and its offspring spawned many creative efforts to pay landowners and enterprising buyers top dollar for taking more than marginal acreage out of production. With that history lesson, let's aim at the future.
Wheel and deal
CRP contracts on 1.2 million acres expire on September 30 of this year; Contracts on another 3.9 million acres will expire the same time next year. Current grain prices will give Uncle Sam a real run for the money, according to Bruce Babcock, ag economist at Iowa State University. That may be true in the Corn Belt. But in the Northeast neck of the woods, it's a closer race.
Pressure has been building in Congress to let landowners out of the conservation program without penalty. The intent: Hold down food, feed and fuel costs. But you can bet that environmental groups will fight it with every tooth and nail they can scrounge up.
Used and abused
CRP programs have real value in stemming soil erosion and cleaning up streams. But allowing whole farms or whole tracts into the program has been used by too many landowners to rob Uncle Sam and steal cropland from real farmers. I've seen too many cases where Uncle Sam invested thousands in expensive conservation practices such as parallel tile outlets and contours, then coming back to pay again to put that same land in CRP.
Such cases have no value as stream buffers. Their only environmental benefit - better breeding grounds for noxious weeds, more rabbits, more groundhogs and more Bambis. Local Farm Service Agency committees share the blame for such doings.