Other’s opinion: Beefing up farm conservation programs should draw support

Published 6:30 am Wednesday, April 14, 2021

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The Free Press, Mankato

A renewed focus on conservation programs to convert sensitive farmland to wetlands and grasslands is the best way to provide additional funding for farmers to voluntarily enter programs that restore land and to help fight climate change.

A story in Saturday’s Free Press showcased just one example of the success of conservation programs. Richard Gustafson enrolled in the Minnesota Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) to permanently convert some farmland back into wetlands.

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There are two primary programs available: CREP, a state-federal program, and the federal Conservation Reserve Program. CRP has existed for more than 30 years and is administered by the Farm Service Agency. In exchange for annual rental payments, farmers agree to take land out of production and plant species to improve water quality and environmental health. Millions of acres of land are enrolled nationally.

The only downside to the program is that it’s not permanent. Instead landowners contract CRP for 10 or 15 years.

The CREP program, on the other hand, is aimed at the most environmentally sensitive areas, such as river bottom land or farmland around lakes or on or above steep ravines. Landowners keep the land in private ownership but get paid a higher per acre fee for restoring the land in perpetuity.

Democrats are preparing to pour money into federal conservation programs as part of President Joe Biden’s massive infrastructure bill — something that would help address farming-related climate change.

With ever higher farmland prices, landowners are often reluctant to enroll in conservation programs if the payments they receive are too low. Increasing the funding available helps ease the choice between continuing to farm marginal and sensitive land or enrolling it in a conservation program.

Converting marginal croplands through the federal CRP and state-federal CREP goes a long way toward better water quality and fighting climate change. Increased funding is something that all Midwest lawmakers should support to ensure landowners are fairly compensated for converting their land to conservation.

And it’s something all lawmakers should be able to support to address the growing problems of climate change.