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Conservation Acres Harder to Come By

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media

For 27 years the popular Conservation Reserve Program has transformed small parcels of land, contributing to cleaner water, more habitat for migrating birds and less soil erosion.

But the program has been enrolling fewer acres in recent years and it’s not just budget cuts that could make an impact.

At a basin in central Iowa’s Onion Creek Watershed, Sean McCoy pulls a state truck up near a brand-new wetland. It looks like a construction zone, with lots of bare earth.

McCoy, an environmental specialist with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, is pleased. This private land, which won’t be farmed for at least the next 10 years, already is drawing pectoral sandpipers en route to Alaska and luring Canada geese away from more urban areas where many people view them as pests. Crews recently finished installing a concrete and gravel structure to help maintain the pond-like wetland.

McCoy said the water here will be seasonal — flowing in from about 500 acres of cropland in the spring and fall – and native plants will take over the area in summer.

“In the years to come, that vegetation will de-nitrify it, (removing) all the nitrates that are in the water,” McCoy said.

For 27 years, the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been transforming small parcels of land like this one, contributing to cleaner water, more habitat for migrating birds and less soil erosion. But with Congress tackling a new farm bill this spring, farmers may end up with access to fewer dollars for conservation.

A reduced cap for CRP actually may reflect farmer interest as much as federal budget reductions.

The CRP paid farmers $1.7 billion in 2012 to keep 27.1 million acres out of production, but it was the lowest enrollment since 1989. CRP acreage peaked in 2007 and has fallen every year since. That means fewer acres of cropland are being converted into wetlands, tree stands and creek buffers, all of which help prevent erosion, reduce nutrient run-off and create habitat for migrating birds.

With today’s high grain prices, even some farmers who have participated in CRP are eager to plant the land again. Some are not re-enrolling as contracts expire.

“We’ve got a lot of CRP land that has been brought back out into production,” said Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames. “I’ve seen a lot of piles of trees sitting around, too, where little odd corners of fields that used to be in trees or something have been pulled out so that that land could be brought into production, too.”

Contracts on 3.3 million acres of CRP land will expire in September.

McCoy, who manages watershed-scale conservation projects for the state of Iowa, said his efforts rely on the participation of individual farmers in federal programs, including CRP. The Onion Creek project also benefits from the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which encourages partnerships like this one between individuals with CRP acres and state, tribal or private programs. USDA also offers farmers the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help them implement conservation measures, often around air quality or energy use.

At the wetland McCoy was visiting in central Iowa, two landowners had enrolled 27 acres of an 80-acre field in the CRP wetland project. They signed contracts that prohibit them from farming on the land. CRP contracts are for 10 or 15 years. The landowners also must implement a conservation plan, and in exchange they will receive rental payments from the federal government.

For McCoy, who works side-by-side with U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation staff, partnerships between agencies and private landowners allow for leveraging small projects into efforts that serve a broader landscape.

We want to improve the health of the watershed to improve the health of the water and improve the health of everything downstream,” he said.

About three hours southeast of Onion Creek, in Washington, Iowa, farmer John Berdo is committed to conservation. He’s had acres enrolled in CRP since at least 1995.

“We’ve done field borders, strips along cricks and about anything we can to conserve soil for my sons and my grandsons,” he said.

Preserving the quality of the land he will leave to them drives his conservation efforts. His CRP-funded eight acre tree stand prevents erosion on a patch of land that would have needed lots of work to be farmable, he said. Rather than invest in the labor and construction efforts to create viable farmland, he took CRP money and planted trees.

“And it just turned out beautiful,” he said. Deer wander among the mixed conifer and deciduous trees that abut a parcel he and his sons are actively farming.

The USDA says CRP projects have restored millions of acres of wetlands and kept hundreds of millions of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus out of waterways nationwide. Berdo sees the benefits for long-term soil health and does some conservation work without help from the government. But he knows that many farmers of his generation want to plant every possible acre until they can’t physically farm any more.

“I’m 62 years old. If it wasn’t for my two sons, I’d run this operation until I’m 70 or something and I’d farm it fencerow to fencerow and then when I got tired, we would have a sale and sell it and let somebody else worry about it,” Berdo said. “And that’s probably not the right attitude, but that’s what happens to people who have nobody to leave the farm to.”

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.
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