CRP’s effect on rural areas likely to linger

Regardless of how many Conservation Reserve Program acres return to farming, expectations are low that rural businesses and small towns impacted by the federal project will return to their former status.

Many blame the program for creating an exodus of producers from largely rural areas in Washington, such as Whitman County, which caused ag-related and other commercial enterprises to fold.

The village of La Crosse, for example, is a “poster child for the downside of CRP,” says Whitman County Commissioner Greg Partch.

La Crosse, a focus of a Western Farmer-Stockman cover story in December 2004 on how the program hurt small towns, has since then witnessed the loss of several key businesses. The Conservation Reserve Program is the “major cause” such communities suffered, says Partch.

Although many growers are now opting to pull out of the program contracts, “it won’t help much,” he notes. “Most of the existing farms are just getting bigger as equipment allows them to work more acres,” he says. “Farmers who left the land under CRP won’t be coming back. That land will just go to bigger farms.”

As a result, ending the program will not result in a return of new producers to the county, he notes. “Families won’t be coming back.”

Partch says attrition probably would have taken place in the future regardless of CRP, but the federal contracts “accelerated that process by 25 years.”

His former employer, Arrow Machinery, serves as an example of how the program caused severe losses in rural businesses. Arrow co-owner Dennis Solbrack says he was forced to close his John Deere dealerships in La Crosse and St. John directly because of losses caused by the program.

“CRP was the cause,” he says. “There’s no question about it. Sales in La Crosse and St. John fell about 50% after the program began.” He estimates the Conservation Reserve Program cost as much as $1 million in personal business losses. The program had “a devastating effect in western Whitman County,” he adds.

He agrees with Partch that the return of former contract acres to farming won’t help. “The infrastructure for the industry that was in place is gone,” he says.

Bad idea

“CRP was a horrible waste of government money. It’s government at its worst,” says Partch.

Critics like Solbrack and Partch say that if the program had remained true to its original premise of allowing only the most erodible lands to enroll, it would have worked best. “When they allowed for whole farms to enter into contracts, a lot of good farmland was no longer worked, and a lot of farmers moved away,” says Solbrack.

That resulted in a lot of youngsters who might have taken over the farms not doing so, says Partch. “It’s just too expensive to start up in farming today,” he says.

“I don’t blame farmers who signed up for CRP,” Partch notes. “In many cases, their bankers advised them that it was better than signing up for another line of credit.”

Time for reinvention

But the future of rural life is anything but dim for Whitman County, he adds. “Small towns are reinventing themselves by attracting new businesses and attracting a tourist trade,” he says. A $10 million grant to spread high-speed Internet to new areas of rural Whitman County will also help those interested in doing online business, he explains.

Hot spots like the Pullman region continue to grow as well, with Washington State University located there. Schweitzer Lab is building an $8 million electrical switching facility nearby, which is expected to employ 2,500.

Ag is faring well despite the CRP pullouts, with record wheat prices leading to a new outlook for rural communities. Arrow had its best year ever in 2010, reports Solbrack, who runs Deere dealerships in Colfax and Pomeroy.

But high wheat prices lighting up the economy in Whitman County have been an unexpected spark. While things are good today, “we’ll never go back to the way we were” before CRP, says Partch.

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BIG CHANGES: Massive new equipment enabling single farms to operate on more acres with fewer people is leading to a growth in big operations as Conservation Reserve Program land returns to production.

This article published in the May, 2011 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.