Conservation Reserve Program funding to be debated in Congress

By JOHN O'CONNELL

Capital Press

The federal Conservation Reserve Program should continue to be viable despite proposed budget cuts to the farm bill, a key Farm Service Agency official says.

Included among proposed agricultural cuts in President Barack Obama's new budget plan is a call to save about $2 billion throughout the next decade through reductions to agricultural conservation programs.

"The president has included a reduction in conservation programs. Frankly, we've heard around a 3 percent reduction, which is not a huge amount," said Dick Rush, Idaho executive director for the USDA Farm Service Agency. "What I'm guessing is in future CRP signups, fewer acres will be allowed to go into the program. Certainly I can't imagine it will impact contracts that are already in place."

As of July 2011, Idaho had 667,150 acres enrolled in CRP, with the highest concentration in the southeast corner of the state. By comparison, Washington had 1.46 million acres in the program, Oregon had 550,906 acres and California had 121,971 acres.

Rush said CRP has broad support, and he credits it with helping sharp-tailed grouse numbers rebound from the brink of a federal Endangered Species Act listing. CRP is also the nation's largest conservation program in both the number of acres enrolled and funding. In Idaho, the program paid out about $32 million in rental payments last year, according to the FSA.

"We're paying $40 to $60 per acre," Rush said. Payments vary by county and land conditions. "It is an expensive program. I'm sure Congress will take a look at it, and the president has proposed they do so."

Power County dryland farmer Richard Kopp has 330 acres enrolled in CRP, but he's seen abuses of the program. He chose to enroll acres with poor soil and steep topography and acknowledged he'd likely leave them uncultivated if he were to lose his CRP contracts.

"The reason CRP was formed was for marginal or highly erodible soil," Kopp said. "Some of these people put their whole cotton-picking farms in there just for retirement because they didn't want to farm any more."

In 2010, both Bannock and Power counties lost CRP acres for being above the 25 percent cap. Kopp believes past abuses have been remedied as acres have expired and been returned to production.

Brett Gullett, the southeast regional farm bill coordinator with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, argued CRP plays a vital role for providing wildlife habitat.

"The big thing is as a fish and game agency we can't just focus on state lands. There's not enough of them," Gullett said. "We need to partner with landowners and use the farm bill."

Sen. Mike Crapo, R- Idaho, supports keeping cuts to CRP minimal, said his spokesman Lindsay Nothern.

"Crapo has been a solid supporter of CRP in particular because it benefits both agriculture and the environment," Nothern said, noting high agricultural prices have driven down CRP participation lately.

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