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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Fallow farmland proves unsustainable
Dane County farmers are walking away from land-conservation program
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Mazomanie farmer Neil Schlough pulled some of his land out of the program, citing onerous rules and meager rewards.
Mazomanie farmer Neil Schlough pulled some of his land out of the program, citing onerous rules and meager rewards.
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

Last year, Dane County grain farmer Neil Schlough pulled 12 acres of his land out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Schlough, who participated in CRP for 20 years, grew tired of constraints on the use of his land. His natural grasses were being lost to scrubby trees and noxious weeds. And program rules made it hard even to maintain walking trails.

"You've got to certify and recertify your acres, and they have all these rules put on it," says Schlough, who lives in the town of Mazomanie. "I think people are frustrated with that."

Schlough, who still has some land in CRP, cites another reason farmers are opting out of the program. "It's a money issue," he says. "This year we've got good crop prices. People think they'll be able to make some money."

Dane County conservationist Pat Sutter agrees, saying many farmers are taking advantage of better markets for their crops and higher available rents for use of their land: "So land's coming out of CRP, and a lot went right into corn and soybeans. It's a timing thing."

Under CRP, landowners agree not to till lands that are highly susceptible to erosion or are fairly marginal for agriculture, like wetlands. In return, landowners receive a fixed per-acre payment from the federal government every year for a decade. Farmers don't get rich off CRP. But those annual checks have kept many a family farm afloat.

In 2006, Wisconsin had 630,000 CRP acres. Today, that's down to 531,000 acres. And it's about to fall further.

"By Sept. 30, 2008, I have roughly another 83,000 CRP acres that will expire," says Susan Butler, a conservation specialist at the Madison office of the federal Farm Service Agency.

Between 2008 and 2012, nearly 300,000 more acres are scheduled to leave Wisconsin CRP rolls. Dane County saw 5,400 acres go out of CRP in 2007, with another 4,600 acres exiting later this year. "We've lost quite a bit of CRP," says Sutter. "Probably 40-plus percent of it has come out."

The original "green-and-blaze-orange" program, CRP is loved by hunters, conservation groups and environmentalists alike. Across the nation, the program has preserved millions of acres of wetlands and grasslands. That has meant more ducks and pheasants, which makes hunters happy.

"These lands provide incredible habitat for a wide range of animals and plants," says Todd Holschbach, director of government relations for the Nature Conservancy of Wisconsin. "Oftentimes, they're bordering lakes, rivers, and streams, and so CRP plays a vital role in water quality, too."

Ducks Unlimited, a conservation and waterfowl hunting organization based in Memphis, Tenn., is a huge promoter of CRP, which has been a boon for ducks. (The group has 44,000 Wisconsin members, more than all but two states.) Scott McLeod, Ducks Unlimited's director of farm bill programs, says CRP lost two million acres nationally in 2007 alone. He expects the current 34 million CRP acres to freefall to 22 million acres in the next several years, as more farmers pull out of the program to grow crops or rent to crop producers.

"The rental-rate issue, that's going to have to be fixed so we've got an interest in the program again," says McLeod. Nationally, he notes, CRP only pays 40% to 50% of the rent farmers can otherwise get for their lands.

Dane County's Schlough, who this year planted corn on the 12 acres he pulled out of CRP, sees the value of conserving land but agrees that participating in the program does not make economic sense.

"The CRP money was a joke 10 years ago when I put it in the last time around," he says. "Rental rates around me are running $150 an acre. And I was getting $64.29 an acre [under CRP]. You do the math."

David Fischer, Dane County crops and soils agent for the UW-Extension, says lands coming right out of CRP have a lower rental value the first year, because they need intensive work to become crop-ready. Fisher rates first-year properties as worth between $90 and $100 per acre, although higher crop prices are driving that number up. And once fields are back in service, "I have heard of them exceeding $200 per acre."

On average, says Butler, Wisconsin landowners are paid $73 per CRP acre. Those rates are going up this August, but no one expects the new CRP rates will match current rents. Not until grain prices come down, anyway.

In recent years, the federal government has provided hefty subsidies to encourage more corn growing, in part for ethanol production. It worked. But while American farmers devoted more acres to corn, surging economies in China and India created greater demand for all grains.

Recent Midwest floods that destroyed thousands of acres of already-sown crops will have the effect of keeping prices high. In June 2008, corn hit a record at the Chicago Board of Trade, trading at $8.25 per bushel for July 2009 contracts, more than twice the 40-year average.

The loss of CRP lands has some important global warming consequences. The Nature Center's Holschbach co-chaired the agricultural and forestry working group of Gov. Jim Doyle's Wisconsin Global Warming Task Force. The worst-case scenario, with nearly all Wisconsin CRP acres put into crops by 2018, would release an estimated 1.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

"That doesn't take into account the substantial energy inputs needed to put those lands back into crops," says Holschbach. "Plowing the soil, fertilizer use, transportation, harvesting - all that would burn a great deal of fossil fuels, too."

One recommendation of Holschbach's group is to create a state-run Energy Crop Reserve Program, a kind of substitute CRP, paying incentives for landowners to grow perennial grasses and energy crops on lands at risk for intensive crop production. A state tax incentive for maintaining existing vegetation was also recommended.

Holschbach sees "a fair amount of enthusiasm" for these ideas at the state Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture. Those recommendations, and many others, go to Doyle the end of July; Holschbach hopes to see action taken by the end of 2008.

"We're trying to provide some incentives to landowners to keep the lands unplanted and undeveloped," he says. "The end results would be a decrease in CO2 emissions and an increase in habitat conservation. We think that's a win-win situation for all of us."

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