The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is sometimes conflated with other agricultural programs that subsidize people not to grow crops on historical farmland. Some of these programs have a deserved bad rap because the payments, which were originally intended to help sustain farmers through fluctuating crop prices and decrease overproduction, have gone to people who have no intention of farming, but who are just building houses on former cropland.
The CRP is more complicated in its combination of benefits to taxpayers vs. just farmers. Although it is sometimes lumped in with the above programs, it has stricter requirements about what happens to the land than say, the rice-growers subsidies, and it does have some documented conservation benefits.
Part of the CRP’s problem is that it is not clear what its purpose really is. Is the point to subsidize farmers, or to conserve habitat? The USDA seems to like to emphasize the latter on their web site, and it is true that cropland, typically monoculture, has lower species diversity than the CRP lands which has much more diverse vegetation (King & Savidge, 1995). But based on the subsidy levels, which have been higher than they need to be for the value of the land (Smith, 1995), the former seems to be the true function.
Of course the other aspect of the program that undermines its conservation value is that contracts are typically 10-15 years, after which the farmer can choose to put the conserved land back into agricultural production, thus obliterating all the conservation gains that have been made in the decades since the program began.
About a year ago, in fact, big agriculture and farm state senators were putting pressure on Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer to allow early release (without penalty) from lands contracted under the program, in order for farmers to cash in on the ethanol boom, which was famously driving up grain prices until our recent recession kicked in. Fortunately, Schafer made his decision when prices were already beginning to fall back, and he refused to alter the agreements.
Another unintended effect of the program, though, has been that as lands in the CRP increased, farmers have developed new farmlands (Wu, 2000), presumably from land that had been more ecologically diverse. This loss of acres contributing to biodiversity is not of course mentioned by proponents of the program that promote its conservation value.
The recession will not last forever, and when agricultural subsidies and crop prices get back to their destructive combination, it seems certain that millions of acres will be brought out of the CRP and converted back to cropland. Although biodiversity on these lands will be an obvious casualty, at least perhaps soil degredation can be slowed down a bit. Follett et al. (2009) have determined that no-till corn production could help maintain soil organic carbon levels. Then perhaps when the government finally wakes up and gets rid of the disastrous ethanol subsidies, the lands returned to the program would not take so long to become real habitat again.
But don’t expect the USDA to think ahead and take steps to require the beneficial practice. That (but apparently not generous subsidies) would certainly interfere with the “freedom to farm.”
Follett, R.F., Varvel, G.E., Kimble, J.M., and Vogel K.P., 2009. No-till corn after bromegrass: effect on soil carbon and soil aggregates. Agronomy Journal 101(2)261-268.
Johnson, D.H. and Schwartz, M.D., 1993. The Conservation Reserve Program and grassland birds. Conservation Biology 7(4):934-937.
King, J.W. and Savidge, J.A., 1995. Effects of the Conservation Reserve Program on wildlife in southeast Nebraska. Wildlife Society Bulletin 23(3):377-385.
Smith, R.B.W., 1995. The Conservation Reserve Program as a least-cost land retirement mechanism. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 77(1):93-105.
Wu, J., 2000. Slippage effects of the Conservation Reserve Program. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 82(4):979-992.