One sticking point in the haggling over the Farm Bill is the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal payout to farmers for converting cropland into grassland.
U.S. farmers pulled millions of acres out of the program when corn and soybean prices were soaring in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Congress responded by lowering the national cap on acres in the program by 36 percent over the past 10 years.
But now, facing dismal commodity prices ahead of the fall harvest, farmers are looking to put more land back into conservation.
“There’s a lot of support for raising the cap,” said Thom Petersen, head of government relations for the Minnesota Farmers Union. “It takes some corn and beans off the market and it’s also good conservation.”
Raising the cap may be difficult. Since 2007, Congress has lowered the nationwide cap on acres from 40 million to 24 million. Over that same period the number of acres in the program in Minnesota fell by nearly half, to just over 1 million.
“What I’ve been trying to do is figure out how to get more acres,” said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.
With the Farm Bill set to expire Sept. 30, lawmakers are trying to reconcile a House version of the bill that raises the cap to 29 million acres and a Senate bill that raises the cap only slightly, to 25 million acres. Peterson said his staff was negotiating with Senate staff on Friday.
The House version is able to raise the cap more than the Senate version because it also aims to cut the cost of the program, said Peterson. He added the program in its current state is “all screwed up.”
The House version of the bill would require that farmers are paid no more than 80 percent of per-acre rental rates in their county for land in conservation. Now the government payouts in contracts — usually 10 years — are locked in according to a five-year Olympic average, which eliminates the high and low values and averages the rest.
“What’s going on is we’re paying too much. We’re irritating the farmers,” Peterson said. “We’re paying way more for CRP than what the land is worth.”
The other cost-saving measure in the House version of the bill is to force farmers to pay more of the cost of seeding the land with the grasses — known as “cover” — that are now required for the land to qualify for the Conservation Reserve Program.
“They’ve been demanding that cover be all these mixtures that have $500- to $600-an-acre seed in them,” Peterson said. “The reason that that has been successful is that the government paid 100 percent.”
The House version of the bill stipulates that the government share only 25 percent of the cost of seeding the land with grass, though Peterson said it’s more likely to land at 50 percent.
Farmers are in favor of raising the acreage cap and generally agree that reduced payments per acre for the program make sense, said Bill Gordon, a farmer near Worthington. They want to ensure that when farmers do want to put acreage in conservation for soil and water quality reasons, they can.
“I even have some land around rivers and streams that I want to put into buffer strips,” Gordon said, “that right now I can’t enroll.”
Lower payments to landowners who put their land in the program are what Peterson calls a “market-based” solution that will push only marginal farmland into conservation, rather than good farmland.
Dave Schwerin, a sugar beet farmer near Wood Lake, Minn., said that’s important to him — that the program doesn’t compete with farmers for the land.
“CRP should not compete with cash rent,” Schwerin said. “I don’t want CRP to be raising my rent and taking good farmland out of production.”