The U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled a program Friday that will offer financial incentives for farmers to enroll up to 1 million new acres of grasslands and wetlands into the conservation reserve program.
The government pays farmers to idle about 30 million acres of erodible land. However, contracts on about 6.5 million acres expire Sept. 30. With high corn and soybean prices, there is concern that farmers might put more of the land into production to increase profitability.
Soybean prices, for example, surged 9.5 percent in February to close the month at $13.13 a bushel, the highest they've traded in five months.
The new program focuses on encouraging land to be set aside for wetlands restoration, increasing enrolled land by 200,000 acres. Grasslands enrollment increases by 700,000 acres, including land for duck nesting and upland bird habitat. The program also establishes 100,000 new acres to be set aside for pollinators such as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
By rolling out new programs and offering incentives, the USDA hopes to maintain the level of erodible farmland in the CRP program at the current level of about 30 million acres, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the AP in an interview.
The department also expects to see conservation programs come under close scrutiny in the budget process as cuts loom. The cost of the 1 million new acres will come from the USDA's existing conservation budget.
"There's recognition that we're likely to have fewer conservation programs, but hopefully we have enough flexibility in the programs that remain to be able to meet and tailor conservation programs and projects to the individual needs of the operators and the individual needs of particular watersheds," Vilsack said.
Setting aside land in CRP is one way to reduce erosion, which can cause farmland runoff and send chemicals into lakes and streams. The USDA estimates CRP keeps more than 600 million pounds of nitrogen and more than 100 million pounds of phosphorous from flowing into waterways.
By idling the erodible land and planting it in grasses and other vegetation, the program also creates wildlife habitat.
Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs for the Iowa Soybean Association, said farmers must weigh their options when land comes up for renewal this September.
"Farmers will take a look at what kind of return they can get in the marketplace to bring those lands back into production," he said.
His family owns about 150 acres in southern Iowa, where steep and rolling land is common, and might take some of it out of CRP to plant, leaving the sloping hills in grasslands. In his situation, the land might bring $140 to $150 an acre in the CRP program but could yield well over $200 an acre if planted in corn or beans.
Groups like Pheasants Forever are encouraged by the focus on additional land set aside for wildlife habitat. Many states have seen pheasant numbers fall in recent years in part due to weather patterns but also due to habitat loss, said group spokesman Dave Nomsen.
"How do you in this intensely strong agricultural economy with a 25 percent increase in land values and record high commodity prices find a place for conservation?" he said. "I think this announcement is a big step in the right direction."
Also Friday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar planned to recommend about $30 million of the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund be spent in the prairie pothole region, which includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, and Montana. The $30 million would be about 70 percent of the conservation fund, which comes from the sale of federal duck stamps for hunting and birding.
The wetlands that serve as nesting areas for geese and ducks have shrunk as farmland expands.
The Interior Department also recommended the president's budget include an additional $3.5 million in the Land and Water Conservation Fund for efforts in the prairies.