Senator Grassley and I agree on this...mostly

Senator Charles Grassley was in my town for a public forum recently, so a couple of my colleagues and I attended in the hopes of asking about conservation aspects of the forthcoming Farm Bill. While this well-attended town hall meeting (I’m guessing 80ish) at our local Chamber of Commerce office was dominated by questions about gun control and Russian election hacking, I did manage to ask him about the Conservation Reserve Program.

Senator Grassley (right) is introduced by Jason Hutcheson, President of the Greater Burlington Partnership
Here’s what I asked (verbatim, I recorded it on my phone for later reference to make sure I got the quotes right):
Me: “You and Senator Ernst are on record indicating that you feel that Conservation Reserve Program rental rates are too high and that they’re unfairly competitive to new and young farmers, and whole farm enrollments especially are making it difficult. The reality here in Iowa – I don’t know about other states – but here in Iowa the average CRP contract is 16 acres, more than 90 percent of which is on land with an erodibility index of 15 or higher which is almost twice the minimum rate to be called “highly erodible.” So I guess our options on that would be to either farm those acres for the new farmers or to lower the rental rates and have the actual people that own those lands enroll those into these programs at a loss. With that in mind, with all the water quality issues Iowa is facing - 50 percent of our lakes and streams fail to meet basic water quality standards, this is starting to have an impact on water utilities in places like Des Moines, Burlington is having an issue, and it’s impacting a multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation industry; and its impacting obviously the Gulf of Mexico which has the dead zone growing at rates that simply aren’t sustainable…With that in mind, do you support increasing the acre cap for the Conservation Reserve Program and if not, do you feel that states like Iowa are suited to handle their own water quality issues without expansion of federal programs like CRP?” 
Now that I’ve written it all out, I realize how long of a “question” that really was…

Anyway, it’s probably worth taking a moment here to provide some background.

The Conservation Reserve Program

Simply put, the Conservation Reserve Program is the single most successful voluntary conservation program in American history. According to the Farm Service Agency (the federal agency tasked with administering the program):
“In exchange for a yearly rental payment, farmers enrolled in the program agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. Contracts for land enrolled in CRP are 10-15 years in length. The long-term goal of the program is to re-establish valuable land cover to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and reduce loss of wildlife habitat.”
Here's a video about it. It's kind of long. More like a mini-documentary.

In other words, the program pays farmers to stop farming environmentally sensitive land and instead plant those acres to soil-holding, water-cleaning, wildlife-friendly species. Generally speaking, that's grasses and wildflowers the likes of which existed on the prairies that covered the landscape before we plowed it all up. 

What’s considered “environmentally sensitive”? Very steep or otherwise highly erodible land. Wetlands. Riparian zones – the land alongside creeks and rivers. Edges of field where nutrients tend to run off. Things like that.

CRP is delivered in a number of ways through a number of different programs, or practices, within the overall CRP umbrella. The two main delivery mechanisms for CRP practices are the General Signup and Continuous Signup, often referred to as just General or Continuous CRP.

With a General Signup, acres are made available for landowners to enroll during a set time frame. This is a competitive process and the selection process uses scoring criteria to decide which acres get in and which ones don’t. As you’d expect, the higher scores will go to the most sensitive acres but there are other aspects to the scoring as well including the type of cover to be planted (such as that focused on pollinators), whether the acres being offered are expiring CRP acres, the rental rate the landowner is willing to accept (if lower than the base rate), and others.

Continuous CRP is different in that it allows landowners to sign up continuously as long as acres are available. There’s no specific window of time for signing up. As long as the acres being offered meet the requirements of the practice being applied (such as erodibility, proximity to a stream, etc. depending on the practice), they’re generally accepted. Once the federally allotted acres for a certain continuous practice are used up, no more enrollments are accepted.

A CRP field buffer. This strip of grass catches nutrients before they run off the field. It also provides wildlife habitat.

The Benefits of CRP

For the most part, nearly every field buffer, filter strip, or riparian corridor you see on the landscape is likely attributable to some CRP practice. If you've ever hunted pheasants or quail on private ground in the midwest, you likely hunted on CRP acres. 

Since it's inception, CRP has prevented more than 8 billion tons of soil from eroding. In a single year (2010) CRP waterways and riparian buffers filtered 365 million pounds of nitrogen and 72 million pounds of phosphorous, keeping those nutrients out of our streams, lakes, and rivers (source). 

In a previous post, I talked about how much topsoil the state of Iowa loses off its 26 million acres of farm ground every year - 130 million tons, or the equivalent of a topsoil-hauling coal train stretching from New Orleans to Minneapolis 8.5 times. CRP currently protects almost the same number of acres (24 million). 

Considering the problems we're facing in the Dead Zone now, imagine what the situation would be if another 24 million acres were farmed (granted, not all of those acres are in the Mississippi River watershed, but you get the point). Now imagine the benefits we could reap if we added, say, another 10 million acres to CRP and protected even more of the most highly erodible, environmentally sensitive soils on our landscape. That's truly the benefit of this program.

CRP Rental Rates

CRP rental rates are based on soil type and local cash rent rates (the amount a farmer pays to rent land from someone so the farmer can farm it - a lot of farmers farm more than just the land they own). CRP rates are calculated using a three year rolling average of the local cash rent rates paid for those soil types. For the purposes of calculating the payment on a particular CRP contract, the three predominant soil types that the contract would cover are considered and their respective rental rates are weighted to get the contract rental rate. But once the contract is executed – and here’s where Grassley and Ernst have a reasonable point – that rate is locked in for the life of the contract (usually 10-15 years).

Now as we all know, markets can fluctuate quite a bit over the course of a decade or more. And since cash rents generally follow the markets, if a landowner locked down a CRP contract at the end of a 3-year run of high crop prices, his rental rate would be comparatively higher than that of one that was executed during a dip in the market. Accordingly, a farmer looking for land to rent would then face the possibility of CRP rates being higher than the current year’s going rate for cash rent if he were to bid on acres, say, in the first year of a market downturn.

But of course, the opposite could also be true. A landowner could commit to CRP only to find cash rents rise. We saw this a number of years ago when corn prices soared to $7+ per bushel (lately corn has been selling for less than $4/bushel) and a number of landowners actually paid the penalty to get out of their CRP contracts because it was more lucrative to pull a crop off the land at then-current crop prices than ride out the CRP rental rate which was locked in when the markets were much lower.

Grassley mentions this issue in his reply to my question (which is transcribed later in this post) and talks about adjusting the rental rate formula, I assume to better keep pace with market fluctuations.

Whole Farm Enrollments are Rare

In a recent Op-Ed, Grassley wrote:
“When entire farms composed of productive farmland are enrolled in CRP at rental rates with which many farmers can’t compete, growth opportunities are lost and too many farmers are put at a disadvantage – particularly young and beginning farmers. CRP is an important program that offers land owners additional avenues to gain value from their land while providing environmental benefits to the surrounding areas, but it must be properly administered and stay true to its original intent.”
That was the “on record” I was referring to in my original question. The truth is that it’s not often that landowners enroll their entire farms in CRP, though I can’t say it never happens. So claiming that whole farm enrollments are an issue for new and young farmers is, at best, staking a claim on the exception rather than the norm. As I stated to Grassley in my rather lengthy question set up, here in Iowa the statistics indicate we do a pretty damn good job of targeting CRP to the acres that are most sensitive. Here are some of the most notable stats for Iowa (gleaned from FSA records):
  • Only 2 percent of Iowa CRP contracts exceed 100 acres in size. For comparison, the average farm size in Iowa is 350 acres.
  • The average CRP contract in Iowa is 16 acres. Iowa has one of the smallest average contract sizes in the nation.
  • Iowa leads the nation for acres enrolled in the Highly Erodible Lands Initiative (HELI) with 157,000 acres enrolled which is more than twice the amount of the next closest state. For land to be considered “highly erodible” it needs to have an Erodibility Index (EI) of at least 8. HELI lands have an average erodibility index of 20 or more. In other words, these lands are crazy erodible. And as I’ve mentioned before, loss of topsoil in Iowa is a pretty serious thing.
  • As far as General CRP is concerned, 87 percent of those acres in Iowa have an EI of 15 or higher. Only six other states (well, five states and one territory) have higher average EI’s on their General CRP enrollments (AK, TN, PA, KY, MO, and Puerto Rico).
And since I know you’re asking, here’s an explanation of what the Erodibility Index is, as described to me by Erica Yost, our local Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist:
“The erodibility of soils can be described as their sensitivity to the effects of wind and water on the soil structure. The erodibility index is determined by combining the effects of slope and soil type, rainfall intensity and land use. These aspects are represented by terrain morphology (soil and slope), mean annual rainfall and broad land use patterns.”
Basically, the higher the EI, the more likely that topsoil will end up eroding away. And when it does, it ends up contributing to the crappy state of our water quality. CRP and other Farm Bill programs are  a key part of the suite of federal programs we have to help implement the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

The Case for More Acres

CRP was first introduced in the 1985 Farm Bill and has been protecting the most environmentally sensitive land ever since. At its peak, CRP once supported 37 million acres but in the 2014 Farm Bill (the most recent one - we get a new one about every five years), Congress reduced the program to 24 million acres.

Now a diverse array of conservation and ag sector supporters are increasing pressure on Congress to raise the acre cap. Reasons range from water quality to wildlife habitat to the protection of pollinators, depending on which group is asked. The ag side mostly sites water and soil protection as well as sustainable farm income as their reasons for supporting an increased acre cap though most are hesitant to ascribe a specific number that they'd like to see it raised to.

There have been some proposals though. Wildlife and conservation organizations would like to see a 40 million acre cap. Some have tossed around 35 million as more reasonable. Back in April of last year, South Dakota Senator John Thune proposed raising the acre cap to 30 million.

So what did Grassley think? Here was his response to my question:
“…I would increase it [the acre cap] and I’d expect it to be increased but… the 900 pound gorilla here is what fits into the budget? So that’s going to make a difference…so that answers your question. Increase it.”
Well now that sounds promising.

But then he had to condition it a bit by suggesting there may be some changes to the rental rates.
Grassley: “Now let me say that the formula that’s used for deciding what the government’s going to pay farmers is based upon a three year average that still has some of the seven-dollar corn in it and so we want to reduce it so it’s more current and then the federal government won’t outbid cash rent farmers for that rent. And then to get the most value out of the taxpayers’ dollars, it should be oriented toward… I call them “environmentally fragile soils,” in other words CSR [Corn Suitability Rating] of 60 ought to be in before CSR of 80…and then if you had a whole farm that fell into the 60 then that would be okay but if you had a farm that was half 80 and half 60, I don’t think the half that’s 80 ought to be put in because we aren’t getting as much benefit from our farm program and you’re cutting young farmers out of renting a farm…and that’s where we heard most of it, young people like you that can’t get rent because either some really big farmer outbids them or the government outbids them. It’s one thing for a big farmer to outbid them but quite another thing for their own government to do the damage to them.”
As much as I would have loved to have a longer conversation about how well CRP acres are currently implemented, there were a ton of other people that wanted to ask questions (probably about guns and Russians) so I simply followed up with:
Me: “So do you see this being a policy issue within the broader Farm Bill, or a policy issue with implementation practices within the individual states?”
Again, now that I’ve written it out, I see the flaws in my wording. That question was my poor attempt to see if he thought states should be given latitude to decide what works best for them (implementation) versus a blanket national policy (within the broader farm bill), since we know Iowa has done such a great job of maximizing the value of its limited program acres.

He replied with this:
Grassley: “As far as CRP is concerned, I don’t think you have variation from state to state. I think it’d have to be a national policy…now you often find that every state tends to follow federal law but they interpret it just a little bit different so sometimes…it just gets administered a little bit different.”
And that was the end of it. They moved on to the next person whose question was “what do you think of our president?” and everyone consequently forgot about the Farm Bill.

So will we get more acres or not?

The short answer is I don’t know. There’s a lot more to a Farm Bill than CRP, or even just conservation programs in general. And as we’re well aware, there are certainly a diversity of opinions in Washington D.C. and that diversity doesn’t always lend itself to much progress on issues as wide-ranging those contained in a Farm Bill. It will certainly be interesting to see where the debate goes.

If you’d like to weigh in with your support for CRP, or just find out some more about it, go to And of course you can always take the time to contact your Representative or Senator and let them know where you stand.