The debate on the farm bill is always a push-pull of interests, but this year the stakes are staggering as Congress considers cutting billions from agricultural and food programs.
Everything is on the chopping block, including one of the law's most successful environmental provisions the Conservation Reserve Program. The CRP pays farmers annual rents in return for retiring highly erodible cropland from production for 10 to 15 years.
USDA Farm Services Agency
The Conservation Reserve Program has lost seven million acres since 2007. Here are total acres (in millions) for the four-state region.
The CRP was part of the 1985 Farm Bill, which marked huge shifts in farm policy and environmental protections. Designed initially to control soil erosion, the CRP evolved into a popular program that restored valuable wetlands, improved water quality and provided natural habitats for wildlife.
"When we went through the fencerow-to-fencerow era and then in the 80s when they put the CRP in, it was basically putting land back into grass that probably never should have been broke up and farmed to begin with," said Darren Niemeyer, who farms 1,700 acres in south-central Nebraska.
Niemeyer said his landlord has placed some land in CRP, and he supported that, as the acres are highly erodible, marginal land that doesn't produce much profit. He opposes any cuts to the CRP.
The 2012 Farm Bill debate comes at a critical time for the CRP, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Despite its success, the CRP has lost some seven million acres an area the size of Vermont since its highest enrollment in 2007. Farmers would rather cash in on the high crop prices than take the guaranteed annual rent payments from the government, which average $55 an acre.
The CRP is also facing financial cuts and constraints. Of the $33 billion in reductions proposed by President Obama, some $2 billion is aimed at slicing up conservation programs. Congress is also considering placing a new cap on the program, cutting it to a 25 million annual acre limit, down from the current 30 million.
The Farm Service Agency, which runs the CRP, has been vocal in touting the program's benefits. During a recent visit to Kansas City, Bruce Nelson, the agency's administrator, said the CRP has saved eight billion tons of soil. It's especially important now, given that the Dust Bowl region parts of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are in a severe drought, he said.
"It's those kinds of conditions that can get land up blowing again," Nelson said. "I think one of the reasons that's not happening now is a lot of that sensitive land that's prone to blow is in the Conservation Reserve Program."
Nelson also pointed to this year's payments, which were sent to 900,000 producers in early October.
"Almost $1.6 billion that those farmers and ranchers will use now to help pay for their seed and fertilizer and pay off their operating loans and help the main street businesses keep going in their communities," he said.
Not all in farm country are opposed to keeping land out of the CRP. Some ag advocacy groups want to see more land in production, given high prices and a summer of flooding and drought.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association would like to see some land opened again for grazing, said Kristina Butts, the association's lobbyist.
"This is especially important in times like we face right now where we have natural disasters affecting significant cow-calf country and we're looking for grass which is a high commodity for us in the beef industry as our cattle graze grass the majority of their lives," Butts said.
The association knows there must be cuts to the farm program but is calling for them to be "proportional across-the-board," Butts said. Of most concern to the cattlemen are possible cuts to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, a subsidy for ranchers who use public lands for grazing.
There was plenty of applause when President Reagan signed the 1985 Farm Bill.
Hunting, wildlife and sustainable ag advocates are supporting the CRP, including Ducks Unlimited. In 2008, Congress reduced the CRP acreage cap from 39.2 million acres to 32 million, so any more cuts aren't needed, said Dan Wrinn, Ducks Unlimited's director of public policy.
"We feel very strongly that we gave last time. We've already been cut," he said. "If you look at record commodity prices right now, there's going to be more pressure on our land to produce food and fiber. Obviously that needs to be done, but 32 million in the CRP should be adequate at protecting water flow protection areas."
All eyes now will be on the super committee charged with determining the reductions. Niemeyer, the Nebraska farmer, hopes they make judicious cuts, as he believes that some programs should be reduced. But, he said, CRP should not be one of them.
"I think CRP is definitely one of the things they should not mess with in the ag budget," he said.
But 25 years later, it looks like Congress may again make a Herculean effort at cutting back the program it created.