Monday, March 14, 2011

Is Conservation Reserve Program to protect marginal land causing rural population loss?

A federal farm program that pays farmers to idle their land may be causing population losses in rural America. Leaders of small towns across Washington state think it is. The Conservation Reserve Program, which was established 25 years ago, "paid Washington farmers $84.6 million to leave 1.4 million acres for habitat and erosion control," John Stucke of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane reports. In Whitman County, where more than a dozen towns lost people over the last decade, but the county's largest city, Pullman, enjoyed a 21 percent population growth, the program has become a target of local ire. (Wikipedia map)

"CRP is killing our towns," Whitman County Commissioner Greg Partch told Stucke. Critics of the program say that when farmers idle land, they no longer buy fuel or fertilizer or hire local help for the harvest. Partch argues the program stifles "the local economies by suppressing high-production agriculture in an area that boasts some of the best wheat-growing conditions in the world," the Palouse region, Stucke writes. Still, Judy Olson, state executive director of the federal Farm Service Agency, says the CRP has helped thousands of farmers hold onto their land during down years.

"In the past several years the high price of wheat and other crops has helped farmers fetch a handsome profit, dulling the conservation program’s allure as a safe financial bet," Stucke writes. Farmers who pull land out of the program before its contract expires must pay penalties, and in some cases might have to return the signing bonuses collected upon enrollment. While that is a business decision for many farmers, LaCrosse Mayor Larry "Butch" Burgess still wishes the local economy wasn't hurt. "Used to be around here that the town would get some sales tax money when farmers would spend a few million dollars on new combines," he told Stucke. "We miss that." (Read more)

There's no reason to think that this phenomenon is limited to eastern Washington. What do your local leaders think?


Anonymous said...

Everyone is looking for an excuse as to why their town is dying.. towns are dying across rural America, in areas where just about every acre is planted. CRP doesn't pay that much, it only attracts land that wasn't netting as much to crop it. In some areas, CRP has helped the hunting and wildlife related industries. I have yet to see where really good land has gone to CRP, in the vast majority of cases, it has been marginal land.

Anonymous said...

I live in rural Minnesota where a lot of ground has been in CRP for close to 20 years now. It has definately hurt our community and stifled opportunites for farmers. In our area, some of the best land in the area is in CRP. To put icing on the cake, the government is offering new contracts that are almost double the rate of what current land is being rented for...and i thought our government was broke?