WASHINGTON - Under pressure from farmers, livestock producers and soaring food prices, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is weighing a policy change that could lead to the plowing of millions of acres of land that had been set aside for conservation.
At issue is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), under which the government has paid farmers to stop growing row crops, such as corn and soybeans, on 34 million acres across the country. Designed in the mid-1980s to hold down production and bolster commodity prices, the $1.8 billion-a-year program has turned into a major boon for conservation, with much of the acreage planted with perennial grasses or trees, or restored to wetlands.
But the ethanol boom, widespread flooding and high prices for feed crops have changed the equation. Livestock producers have been howling about the high price of animal feed. Pork producers say they are losing $30 per pig.
"We need more corn. That's all there is to it," said Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, one of many agricultural trade groups pressuring Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to change the rules of the conservation program to release land into production.
Industry observers expect Schafer to announce his decision imminently. Whatever he decides is certain to be controversial. Environmentalists are decrying the idea of renewing farming on the land, saying that the program represents a huge taxpayer investment in conservation and that expanded cultivation might exacerbate future flooding.
"He's got to choose between agriculturalists and environmentalists, and I'm not sure he wants to make that choice," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said. Grassley has met with Schafer and urged him to let farmers out of their CRP contracts without paying a penalty, while also, as he put it in a letter to Schafer, protecting "the most environmentally sensitive lands."
Environmentalists argue that the short-term gains from additional row crops would be outweighed by long-term environmental damage.
"The reason it's in the Conservation Reserve Program, it's environmentally fragile, it's highly erodible land, and we've invested a hell of a lot of money in getting cover on this land and putting it to bed, basically," said Ralph Heimlich, an environmental consultant to the Environmental Defense Fund and a former deputy director at the USDA.
This week, Schafer issued an order allowing livestock to graze on millions of acres of recently flooded CRP land in the Midwest. The emergency action didn't satisfy the food industry. Robb MacKie, president of the American Bakers Association, sent a letter to Schafer on Tuesday saying the emergency grazing "simply is not enough to have any beneficial impact on high food prices."
CRP lands are also the subject of a legal dispute playing out in federal court in Seattle. This week, a federal judge there sided with the National Wildlife Federation and issued a temporary restraining order against the USDA to stop an earlier initiative that allowed limited grazing and haying on CRP lands. The merits of the case will be heard next week.
The conservation program, started in 1985, pays farmers "rent" to leave cropland fallow. Some of the land is used as a buffer along streams and rivers. A typical contract under the program lasts for 10 or 15 years. Anyone wishing to opt out has to pay a penalty and refund all the rent money to the government. But if Schafer waives the penalties, millions of acres could be freed up to be plowed again.
In September, contracts will expire on 1.2 million acres, and in the next four years the numbers jump: 3.9 million acres under contracts that expire in 2009, 4.5 million in 2010, 4.4 million in 2011 and 5.6 million in 2012.
The financial calculations have changed for many farmers, thanks to worldwide food shortages and the massive, government-subsidized effort to convert a sizable chunk of the nation's corn crop to ethanol production. Last year about a quarter of the corn crop was used for ethanol. Congress has mandated that fuel refiners ramp up their use of ethanol this year to 9 billion gallons, up from less than 7 billion last year.
"The release of crop acres is a short-term solution to a corn shortage caused by the federal ethanol mandate and bad weather conditions," said Dave Ray, spokesman for the American Meat Institute. "In the short term, we need to produce more corn to feed ourselves and consumers abroad. In the long term, we need to revisit the notion that burning food as fuel is a good idea."
This week, 15 environmental organizations sent a letter to Schafer declaring that a penalty-free opt-out of CRP contracts would "deliver a devastating blow to the nation's soil, water, and wildlife habitat, and significantly increase global warming."
The organizations said the conservation lands are too marginal for crop production to have a significant impact on the supplies and prices of food crops.
"This is taxpayer money. We've invested in that land for a reason," said Julie Sibbing, a senior program manager for the National Wildlife Federation. "If you don't keep it in that for at least 10 years, we don't get our value out of it."
Scott Stephens, a spokesman for Ducks Unlimited, said the Conservation Reserve Program has had huge benefits for wildlife and water quality. If farmers convert grassland back to crops, he said, "that's a death spiral for wildlife populations."
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