Indiana Senator Richard Lugar was one of those leaders who had a vision in the mid-1980s. Saddled with burdensome crop surpluses, and faced with land being farmed that was prone to soil erosion, he helped promote and successfully pass what's known today as the Conservation Reserve Program.
Land is retired for a set period of time, usually either 10 or 15 years, in exchange for an annual payment. The farmer is required to maintain the land in grass cover during that time, but can't harvest hay or graze it. Usually, rougher fields were accepted. There have been more than two dozen sign-ups, or open periods when farmers could offer land into the program since the mid-1980's when it began. Indiana has its' share, although a vast majority of the acreage enrolled is in some of the western states where huge acreages weren't being protected, and where growing crops wasn't as profitable.
Lugar even maintains a farm in his home county, Marion, and has returned on occasion to champion such things as CRP. However, some experts wonder if CRP will be on the chopping block as Congress tries to get hold of an out-of-control federal budget during the next farm bill debate. The farm bill is scheduled to be debated and passed in 2012, but some skeptics expect Congress to kick the can down the road during this election year, and operate under an extension of the old farm bill rules until 2013.
Dave White, Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, kept his ear to the ground as the Super Committee that wasn't so super did its work last fall. He believes Soil conservation would have fared well in the committee's recommendations, if they had ever reached conclusions. However, he expects funding for NRCS, like almost every agency, would be reduced by some amount.
White is confident that Congress will not scrap the Conservation Reserve Program. However, he believes it's possible that Congress might set a cap of acreage in the program at any one time. His best guess is that could be less than 32 million acres nationwide.
As a result, some fields now in the program would return to farming or hayland production. He hopes his staff will be ready to assist farmers in installing soil conservation practices on that land that rolls out of CRP, but that still has major soil erosion issues.