Iowa farmers pulling thousands of idled acres into production, hurting water quality efforts, study says

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Friday, June 9, 2017

Iowa farmers have pulled nearly 750,000 idled acres back into production in a seven-year span, undermining conservation efforts that are crucial to improving the state’s poor water quality, a new report says.

Roller-coaster corn and soybean prices have spurred farmers in Iowa and across the nation to remove nearly 16 million acres from the federal Conservation Reserve Program, commonly referred to as CRP, between fiscal years 2007 and 2014, the Environmental Working Group said in a study released Wednesday.

As a result, Iowa taxpayers lost nearly $760 million in environmental benefits from farm conservation program as protective ground cover was plowed under to grow more crops, a new report says.

“We need these critical water-quality practices to be sustained,” said Craig Cox, the environmental group’s senior vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Otherwise, we’re just spinning our wheels.”

Corn and soybean prices hit record highs in 2012, when a drought hit Iowa and the nation. Since then, prices have tumbled about 50 percent, “likely starting the revolving door of acres again” as growers jump in and out of the CRP program.

“When crop prices are low, landowners are more likely to put acres into the CRP,” the report said. “But if prices go back up, they can just as readily take the land out and return it to row crop production when their contracts expire.”

The 15.8 million CRP acres removed nationally from the program cost taxpayers “at least $7.3 billion to rent and establish protective cover,” the Washington, D.C., group said. “The billions taxpayers invested in water quality, wildlife habitat and soil protection were lost when these acres dropped out of the program.”

But Bill Northey, Iowa’s agriculture secretary, said farmers and landowners provided the environmental benefits the program pays for.

“Those benefits shouldn’t be under-estimated,” he said, adding that some conservation practices likely remain, even if part of the land returns to crop production.

Under the program, the federal government pays landowners an annual fee — “essentially rent” — to shift environmentally sensitive land out of crop production and cover it with grass and other protective plants.

Farmers who leave their 10-year contracts early are required to pay a penalty.

Despite the shifts, Iowa had nearly 1.7 million acres enrolled in CRP last year; and across the U.S., 23.9 million acres.

The water quality conundrum

The reduction in CRP acres comes as Iowa continues to wrestle with water quality.

Des Moines Water Works unsuccessfully sued drainage districts in three north Iowa counties, claiming underground tiles funneled high levels of nitrates from farm fields into the Raccoon River, a source of drinking water for 500,000 central Iowa residents.

Each summer, high phosphorus and nitrates levels, along with warm temperatures, feed algal blooms that can make water from lakes, rivers and streams unsafe for drinking or using for recreation.

“Issues around agriculture and the environment are affecting people directly — through drinking water, algal blooms and impaired quality of life,” Cox said.

The report said almost three-fourths of the protected acres lost from the CRP program were in just 10 states: North Dakota, Montana, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Minnesota.

“Lost rental payments for these states cost taxpayers over $5 billion between 2007 and 2014,” the report said. “And the newly enrolled acres did not make up the deficit: In those 10 states, 11.5 million acres were not re-enrolled, while only 4.3 million acres were newly enrolled.”

A longer solution?

The Environmental Working Group wants congressional leaders to put more money and acres in the longer-lasting Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, called CREP, or Wetland Reserve Easements.

Both programs, supported through state and federal spending, were hurt with 2014 Farm Bill cuts, the group said. Work is beginning on the new 2018 Farm Bill.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture is already looking at steep budget cuts in 2018, with discretionary spending slated to drop about 20 percent, under President Donald Trump’s proposal.

Northey warned that requiring longer commitments or permanent easements could cut conservation participation.

“There could be a lot less interest from producers and a lot less acres out there” in conservation, Northey said.

And beefing up permanent easement programs would be more costly, given high land prices in Iowa and other states, Northey said.

Farmland values have tumbled over three years to $7,183 in 2016, but they’re still 84 percent higher than 2007, based on Iowa State University surveys.

“We don’t want to back away from the CREP program,” which is used for wetlands in Iowa. “But I would hate to give up CRP acres,” Northey said. “I think we need both.”

A better return on investment

Last year, Iowa’s CREP program tapped $37 million to build seven wetlands that covered 3,330 acres that included buffers.

About 104,000 acres will drain through the wetlands, removing 85,400 tons of nitrates over their lifetime, an annual report estimates.

And Iowa farmers received nearly $244 million for nearly 1.7 million acres in CRP last year.

Cox said higher costs for more permanent programs would be worthwhile to keep the benefits in place.

“We’re trying to figure out how we get more return on the investment that taxpayers are making,” he said.

Over the seven years examined in the report, U.S. farmers enrolled about 6.7 million “new acres” back into CRP. Still, about 9 million more acres were lost than added.

Iowa landowners farmers added 361,262 new acres over that time, but the state ended up with 493,388 fewer CRP acres altogether, the group said.

The report said some congressional leaders want to expand the CRP’s cap from 24 million acres up to 40 million acres.

“Policymakers should think twice before spending billions of dollars more to temporarily rent more acres,” the report said.