Agriculture home

Part I: Subsidies and alternatives

Part II: The Conservation Reserve

Part III: Explorations in Europe

If not farmland, then what?

Until a few years ago, I had no idea how big the Conservation Reserve Program was. It's famous in certain farming areas, such as Kansas, North Dakota, and eastern Washington, but I suspect few urban Americans know that the US government pays almost $2 billion every year to keep farmers from planting crops on an area of farmland equal in size to the state of New York. (I suppose a few more do now that I've done a report about the CRP for National Public Radio.)

If you're looking for more information on the Conservation Reserve, this USDA conference is a good place to start. There are interesting presentations from Ron Reynolds of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as from Kendell Keith, president of the National Grain and Feed Association. Keith believes that the CRP has helped to such the life out of agribusiness in some places. The USDA's Economic Research Service, meanwhile, has a contrary view.

The CRP raises interesting questions about what's natural or preferable in the environment. At first, the program assumed that owners would seed CRP land with native grass or trees, and then just leave it alone, allowing it to revert to something "natural."

But in many places, it became obvious that idle land wasn't "natural." In eastern Kansas, for instance, the prairie, before European settlement, had been grazed and burned periodically. Not only did that make the native grass stronger; it also prevented trees from growing, and that's a good thing for ground-nesting birds like prairie chickens. Prairie chickens stay away from trees because predators sit in tree branches. So the USDA now asks owners of CRP land to burn it at least once every three years.

Culbertson and Harkrader
Bob Culbertson and Robert Harkrader (right), Natural Resources Conservation Service

"From where we're standing, 300 years ago, you couldn't see a tree," says Robert Harkrader, from the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, as he looks across a tree-filled landscape in Coffee County, Kansas.

But the trees are there now, and only remnants of prairie are left. So what should CRP land look like? Native praire? Or something else, a new version of "nature?"