The bureaucrats, farmers, ranchers and interest groups have left the "CRP: Planting for the Future" conference in Fort Collins. After two days of discussion, administrators have a pretty good understanding of needed modifications to the Conservation Reserve Program.
More than 34 million acres of farmland are enrolled in CRP contracts. Most of the contracted acres are in the Midwest, which concerns lawmakers on the East and West coasts. Conference speaker Allison Fox, staff member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, says the Beltway perception is that CRP is not a national program.
"No one," points out John Johnson, deputy administrator for farm programs for the Farm Service Agency, "is advocating CRP's abolishment.
"CRP has had a great deal of success. Soil erosion is dramatically reduced, there are a number of wildlife successes," Johnson says. Changes have been made to the program since it was established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill, adding greater conservation and wildlife components.
The Fort Collins conference brought together advocates, opponents, lobbyists and interest groups to discuss ways to improve CRP. Some of the common themes among the more than 30 panelists participating include:
- More flexibility, based on geography. Some programs that work in one state may not work in another.
- Emphasis on planting native plants on CRP acres. If improving wildlife habitat is a goal, native species are critical to preserve the local ecosystem.
- Further study the economic impact of CRP contracts on rural communities; also, what would pulling expired contracts out of CRP and into production do to commodity prices?
- Announce signup dates more quickly. Letting landowners know about new programs three to six months prior to signup has been the norm; a year would be better.
- Adequately train county FSA and NRCS personnel.
- Conservation plans must be flexible and resilient enough to stand the test of time.
These are just a few of the ideas that Johnson and others will take back to Washington D.C. "Sixteen million acres will expire in 2007 and eight million in 2008," Johnson says. "This conference has given us a good starting point for debate and discussion. We'll cogitate, debate and consider, and be ready to engage in debate in Washington whenever the Farm Bill discussion says."