The National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) is urging the Senate Agriculture Committee to implement fundamental reforms to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) as it begins drafting the 2012 farm bill this month. 

While supporting continued use of the CRP to protect truly environmentally sensitive lands, the NGFA said current federal budget pressures make it imperative to allocate farm program spending in ways that provide sufficient funding for federal crop insurance and conservation programs for working farmlands. The NGFA said there is “compelling evidence” that millions of acres of productive farmland currently idled in the CRP are suitable for row-crop production and are needed to meet growing demand for food, feed, biofuels and exports.

The NGFA cited a Natural Resources Inventory report published in 2009 by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service -- containing 2007 data, the most recent available -- that indicated more than 7.1 million acres of “prime farmland” (Land Classes 1 and 2) were enrolled in the CRP at that time. “This includes some land that does not even require the use of a conservation plan to be farmed,” the NGFA noted.  “The idling of productive resources through land-idling conservation programs costs jobs, stymies growth, and in the case of land resources, has the potential to impact negatively the cost and availability of food and feed.”

Established in 1896, the NGFA consists of more than 1,000-member companies from all sectors of the grain elevator, feed and feed ingredient, integrated livestock and poultry, grain processing, biofuels and exporting business that operate about 7,000 facilities nationwide and handle more than 70 percent of all U.S. grains and oilseeds.

The NGFA said idling productive U.S. crop acres also is contrary to environmental protection on a global basis because it encourages shifts in agricultural production to South America and other countries that do not have the same level of environmental protection, regulations and sound agronomic farming practices as exist in the United States.

“Advancements in seed, tillage and other agronomic practices have resulted in more U.S. acreage being environmentally sustainable for row-crop production, a dramatic change from when the CRP was established under the 1985 farm law,” the NGFA said.

The NGFA also said the CRP stymies the ability of young and tenant farmers to get started in production agriculture, which it called a “particularly acute concern” given the aging demographics of the nation’s agricultural producers. “Rather than rent or sell, many landowners choose to reap CRP rental payments, creating another barrier for young and tenant farmers who are struggling to expand and build economic-sized operations,” the NGFA said.

In addition, the association cited the adverse economic impact of the CRP on the economies and quality of life in rural America.  “Land-idling programs like the CRP, if not managed properly with a focus on the most environmentally sensitive land…, slams the door on economic activity, undermining jobs and the positive ripple economic effects associated with production agriculture, encouraging a continued population exodus from rural communities,” the NGFA said.

Noting that the United Nations has projected that a 70 percent increase in food production will be needed by 2050 as world population increases to 9 billion, the NGFA said the United States has a comparative advantage to expand exports of raw and processed grains and oilseeds, as well as meat products, to meet growing demand.

The NGFA specifically urged the Senate Agriculture Committee to include in the next farm bill statutory language that would:

  • Reduce the current 32-million-acre maximum CRP cap. At a minimum, the NGFA said prime farmland (Land Classes 1 and 2) should be prohibited from future enrollments and reenrollments.  This land can be farmed in an environmentally sustainable way to meet growing food demand.
  • Eliminate the discretion for USDA to exceed the 25 percent limit on CRP enrollments in individual counties, and include within the 25 percent county limit at least a 5 percent allowance for acres enrolled in the wetlands reserve and continuous sign-up process.
  • Mandate that USDA permit penalty-free early outs of Land Classes 1, 2 and 3 enrolled in CRP, provided that producers doing so are required to implement prudent conservation practices on such lands.
  • Restrict whole-field and whole-farm enrollments by subjecting such land to a more stringent environmental benefits index (EBI) scoring threshold than partial-field enrollments.

The NGFA also encouraged Congress to include, as part of the farm bill process, language that would provide the following guidance to USDA in its implementation and administration of the CRP program in the future:  1) Freeze CRP rental rates for three to five years or implement a percentage-based limit on rental rates paid for CRP land compared to average county rental rates so young and beginning farmers are not forced to compete against the government for acres; and 2) limit the number of CRP general sign-ups offered.