By: Kent Keene, Senior Coordinator, Lower Midwestern States and Agriculture Policy
As a hunter, I will never forget my first experience hunting farms enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the thrill that came with bagging my first wild pheasant. Though we were pursuing white-tailed deer, we heard there were pheasants in this particular area of Northwest Missouri. Taking a break between sits, we decided to take a tour of the native grasses and forbs that had been planted in what was formerly a corn field. Sure enough, we spotted a lone rooster ambling through the snow-covered CRP land toward an old brush-lined fencerow. Grabbing my shotgun, I crept along the path laid by the pheasant until I heard him flush just a few feet in front of me. Luckily, the harvest happened too quickly for my nerves to set in.
To this day, I still catch myself scanning the ground as I drive past any former crop field that has been converted to native vegetation. Thousands of hunters follow this same logic every year, as several organizations report a direct link between the amount of CRP acreage available and overall hunter success.
CRP’s role in habitat conservation and hunting opportunity has evolved over the years. Since its inception in 1985, CRP, arguably the most notable Farm Bill conservation program in history, has been a primary player in the conservation of our soil, water, and wildlife resources on America’s private lands. Unfortunately, this program has seen enrollments steadily decline over the last decade as CRP rental rates have declined and farmers explore other, often seemingly more profitable, options. However, there is hope that within the next few years, we can reverse this trend and restore one of the most important, and arguably most successful, private land conservation programs in the world to its former glory. As sporting conservationists, what can we do to restore CRP to its former prominence?
First, we need to take control of the narrative around the program, which continues to be the victim of well-intentioned but poorly worded messaging. Since its inception, the story around the Conservation Reserve Program has often included phrases like “land retirement” or “removing land from production.” Sadly, these perceptions lead to skepticism among agricultural producers who, understandably, place a high value on the financial incentives that go along with producing crops on their land. Why wouldn’t it? Skeptical narratives don’t offer much to anyone interested in incorporating conservation practices to maximize land stewardship. They instead focus on what participating farmers do not receive (i.e., crop revenue). At the end of the day, any farmer is going to make decisions based on the ability to bring crops to market at a profitable scale while ensuring the ability to farm another season.
Though CRP contracts do require farmers to forego planting crops on enrolled acres, that doesn’t mean they are forgoing both short and long-term profitability. Fortunately, several conservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, and others have done a great job working with producers on a voluntary, cooperative basis to incorporate precision agriculture practices and technologies in the decision-making process. Using available technology, farmers can map their production within a single field. This allows them to identify hot spots, as well as areas that are incapable of producing profitable yields. In the latter case, it may be more profitable to enroll these acres in a beneficial conservation program like CRP, rather than waste the seed, fertilizer, herbicide, and fuel required to plant, maintain, and harvest subpar annual crops. This is the logic behind the “Farm the Best, Conserve the Rest” campaign. Keep in mind that the potential for increased profitability still exists for some of these less productive acres in spite of historically low rental payments, allowing the program to benefit farmers, wildlife, and hunters.
As sportsmen and women, we are intimately familiar with the results that CRP has produced for wildlife populations. We are also keenly aware of the ongoing conservation challenges facing our wildlife resources and the importance of private land conservation in addressing those challenges. Using this knowledge, we as hunters need to make our support for this program abundantly clear to landowners, agency officials implementing Farm Bill conservation programs, and legislators responsible for renewing the Farm Bill every five years. Our role includes advocating for increased rental payments to ensure that CRP remains an attractive option for landowners as a part of a well-managed agricultural system, rather than a competitor with commodity production. Further, we need to advocate for the restoration of additional payments throughout the life of CRP contracts that encourage the proper maintenance and management of acres enrolled in the program. Finally, we should celebrate CRP and other private lands conservation programs, highlighting their role in the solutions to some of our most threatening conservation challenges.
With many acres terming out of the program and the recent boost in the acreage cap authorized by the 2018 Farm Bill, there is an opportunity to enroll millions of acres in CRP, but to get there, we must change the narrative of what CRP can do for all stakeholders involved, including landowners who take pride in creating a productive and resilient working lands system. CRP is not a land retirement program – it is another resiliency tool available to our nation’s producers and a source of numerous ecosystem services, including critical habitat for the game species we passionately pursue.