By KEVIN WALKER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A new piece of federal legislation affecting the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is being praised by industry stakeholders as a necessary and positive step forward.
The bill, filed the week of Jan. 20, is called the Preserving Marginal Lands and Protecting Farming Act, HR 349. It was filed by U.S. Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) and would allow more farmland to be used for production rather than lay dormant in the USDA-administered CRP.
“We need to apply smart erosion prevention and conservation techniques on marginal lands, but using taxpayer money to encourage landowners to let quality cropland lay dormant doesn’t make sense,” Roby said. “This legislation restores common sense to the Conservation Reserve Program and saves taxpayers money.”
According to the USDA, through CRP an agricultural landowner can receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource-conserving covers on eligible farmland. Industry stakeholders have become concerned about the loss of valuable cropland to the program and would like to see it cut back.
On the same day the legislation was filed, several agricultural groups came out with a statement praising the most recent attempt at reform. The letter, addressed to House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), is signed by the Agricultural Retailers Assoc., American Feed Industry Assoc., National Grain and Feed Assoc. (NGFA) and several others.
“The importance of allowing productive farmland enrolled in the CRP to be restored to production without harsh economic penalties has been magnified by last summer’s drought conditions that gripped America’s most important crop-production regions,” the letter states, in part.
“Given current weather projections, it appears that the 2013 growing season also may experience drier – and warmer-than-normal – growing conditions, with limited opportunity to rebuild extremely tight grain and oilseed stocks.”
The letter also refers to the committee members’ efforts on the farm bill last year to “right-size” the CRP by reducing the annual acreage caps in the program – to eventually reach 25 million acres – and for mandating the USDA give contract holders the freedom to take acreage out of the program without a penalty.
Roby introduced similar legislation last year, some of which was incorporated into the 2012 House version of the farm bill, and last year the NGFA said it preferred the CRP provisions contained in it.
The group said although the Senate version of the farm bill allowed the amount of land set aside for the CRP to be reduced over time, the House bill was better in this regard because it allowed CRP acres to be reduced much faster, in line with the expiration of actual CRP landowner contracts.
A study commissioned by the NGFA last year also referred to federal budget pressures and growing world demand for food, feed and biofuel as factors that will necessitate a reduction in CRP acreage. Specifically, Roby’s bill would reduce the overall number of acres held in CRP nationwide by 24 million acres over four years and end payments for non-farming of the most fertile and least sensitive lands.
The program classifies acreage into eight categories based on the soil’s ability to support vegetation and crops. This bill would make non-marginal Class 1 and Class 2 lands, which are the most fertile and least sensitive, ineligible for inclusion in the program.
Roby says it would save taxpayers millions of dollars annually. Conservation incentives on highly erodible lands and other environmentally sensitive lands classified as classes 3-8 would not change.
The legislation also would not affect a landowner’s right to convert private land to timber or grasslands for conservation purposes.