High corn prices have high environmental costs

I’ve posted before about farmers pushing the edges of the fields outward and planting in areas not fit for row crops.  The Gazette had a good piece this past weekend about the amount of land that farmers are taking out of the Conservation Reserve Program in order to cash in on the high prices for corn.  This program pays farmers a per acre “rent” in exchange for having them plant beneficial cover crops–this has a huge environmental impact from providing wildlife habitat to helping create buffers to prevent soil and fertilizer run off.  Sadly, the amount that the USDA pays per acre is not keeping up with what farmers can get from switching back to growing corn.

High cost of land, crops taking bite out of conservation acres by Orlan Love in the Cedar Rapids Gazette Jun. 17, 2012

In Iowa, expiring CRP contracts exceeded renewals and new program entries by more than 76,000 acres.

With CRP contracts on more than 175,000 acres expiring this year, Iowa landowners submitted offers of 105,000 acres, with contracts accepted on 99,684 acres.

That translates to a loss of over forty percent of the farmland that was set aside as part of this valuable program.  Of course given that there are over 30 million acres of farmland in Iowa, either number is just a drop in the bucket.  However, given the complete artificiality of Iowa’s landscape, any bit of protected land helps!

This problem is not limited to just Iowa:

States in the pheasant belt, which happens to coincide with the grain belt, lost nearly 2 million CRP acres at the conclusion of the recent signup.

Five states with annual pheasant harvests typically larger than Iowa’s — North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska — lost a combined 1.2 million acres of CRP.

And things likely won’t get better anytime soon, as the current draft of the Farm Bill continues the erosion of the CRP:

While the corn rush is squeezing CRP acreage, so, too, are federal budget constraints. A new farm bill working its way through the Senate would reduce the CRP acreage cap from 32 million to 30 million next year, with further reductions to 25 million acres by 2017.

There’s lots of areas of concern in the current Farm Bill, chief among them a proposed system of crop insurance that will encourage farmers to continue the recent trend to put increasingly marginal land into production.  Much, much more on the Farm Bill at the Iowa Environmental Council’s blog.

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