A bill filed this week by Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL) would allow more farmland to be used for production rather than lay dormant in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
The Preserving Marginal Lands and Protecting Farming Act, H.R. 349, reforms the CRP by restricting the increasingly-frequent practice of paying landowners to let fertile cropland go unplanted for years. The CRP was originally implemented to prevent erosion and protect sensitive farmland by providing funding to landowners who convert it into a vegetative cover such as grass or timber. Recently, however, the program has tended to enroll high-quality and otherwise highly-productive land, all at a time when farmland is becoming more scarce.
"We need to apply smart erosion prevention and conservation techniques on marginal lands, but using taxpayer money to encourage landowners to let quality cropland lay dormant doesn't make sense," Rep. Roby said. "This legislation restores common sense to the Conservation Reserve Program and saves taxpayers' money."
Rep. Roby's bill would:
(1) Reduce the overall number of acres held in CRP nationwide by 24 million acres over four years;
(2) End payments for non-farming of the most fertile and least sensitive lands. The CRP classifies acreage in eight categories based on the soil's ability to support vegetation and crops. This bill would make non-marginal Class I and II lands, which are the most fertile and least sensitive, ineligible from the CRP;
(3) Save taxpayers millions in federal spending annually.
Conservation incentives on highly-eroded lands and other environmentally-sensitive lands classified as Class III through VIII would not change. The legislation would not affect a landowner's right to convert private land to timber or grasslands for conservation purposes if he or she chooses to do so.
Rep. Roby put forward a similar bill last year and was able to get portions of it included in the Farm Bill that passed out of the House Agriculture Committee in July 2012. The Farm Bill did not pass the full House before the last Congress adjourned.
Farming and conservation groups from across the agricultural spectrum have lined up in support of Rep. Roby's Preserving Marginal Lands and Protecting Farming Act, including:
- The Alabama Farmers Federation (ALFA)
- The National Grain and Feed Association
- The American Feed Industry Association
- The Agricultural Retailers Association
- The National Chicken Council
- The National Oilseed Processors Association
- The National Pork Producers Council
- The National Turkey Federation
- The North American Millers' Association
- The Fertilizer Institute
ALFA President Jimmy Parnell praised Roby's bill citing the need for more available farmland and less wasteful spending in Washington.
"We support Congressman Roby's commonsense legislation that addresses two huge challenges jeopardizing America's future," Parnell said. "It offers an opportunity to reduce deficit spending in Washington, and it keeps our nation's most productive farmland in cultivation."
Parnell added that technology advancements alone would not meet the growing world demand for food and fiber. The availability of quality farmland will be vital.
In a letter sent to House Committee on Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), National Grain and Feed Association President Randy Gordon urged passage of the Preserving Marginal Lands and Protecting Farming Act.
"We're extremely pleased that Congresswoman Roby continues her strong leadership on the importance of right-sizing the CRP in a way that preserves its environmental, water-quality and wildlife benefits, while enabling good-quality farmland to exit the program to help the United States remain competitive in response to strong demand for grains and oilseeds," Gordon said.
"As was the case last year, her productive efforts will be instrumental as Congress streamlines and updates existing conservation programs in a way that enhances protection of working farmlands that are so essential to both U.S. agriculture's future and its contribution to America's economic growth and job creation."