The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2012 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Anna Boiko-Weyrauch
In Buchanan County, Mo., crop news infuses daily life.
The news flows from farmer to farmer at the store, the ball game, and lunch after church. Corn price, bean price, bushel per acre.
"You know how to figure what you’ll get," said Ronnie Dean, one of those farmers. Last year Dean figured he needed a change.
For 20 years before this spring, Dean had enrolled his land in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and earned about $83 an acre a year to grow grass. But this fall his fields sprouted soybeans and corn, and Dean earned about $800 an acre, he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds CRP, trumpets the program’s success in reducing soil loss, reviving wetlands and boosting rural incomes. But high commodity prices are prompting farmers like Dean to plow CRP-planted grass fields and cultivate increasingly lucrative food crops.
The change in land use has been dramatic.
Since last year, CRP acreage dropped 23 percent in Missouri and 15 percent across the United States, according to records from the Farm Service Agency. Fewer acres in the program could puncture its conservation gains, harming land and water ecosystems, experts say
Farmers see benefit, but are wooed by profit
Dean, who is nearly 70, has farmed this land since high school. Back then, heavy rain would slice deep ditches in the fields.
"That water, it just keeps cutting until you have no dirt left," he said.
As a last resort, two decades ago he signed up most of his 450 acres in CRP and sowed them with warm- and cool-weather grasses. Over time, the 6- to 8-feet-tall switchgrass grew too thick to walk through. It held the soil and stopped the ditches from forming.
The conservation program targets land like this to keep rain from washing soil and fertilizer into surrounding water, such as the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Another aim is to boost wildlife habitat, compensating for habitat overtaken by sprawling farms.
In adjacent Andrew County, the Adkins family had quail in mind as they lined the edges of their cornfields with grass and trees through CRP. Quail hunting runs in the family.
But farmer Curtis Adkins is not sure this land will stay for the birds. In August, as he stood next to his combine while taking a break from harvesting corn, prices stood above $8 a bushel.
"If corn goes to $10, beans go to $20, I may be farming it all again," Adkins said.
Curtis Adkins, an Andrew County farmer, takes time out from the corn harvest to talk with University of Missouri students and faculty on Friday, Sept. 21, 2012 about why some of his farm is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Photos: J.B. Forbes
Since 2008 corn prices have spiked skyward due to a host of forces, such as overseas demand, ethanol production and harsh weather, according to the USDA. This summer they reached unparalleled highs.
"It’s really tough to convince people to forgo that income to put their land back in CRP," said Dwaine Gelnar, state resource conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.
On a recent morning, five Bobwhite quail squeaked to each other in a cluster of fall-colored trees at Happy Holler Lake Conservation Area near Savannah.
In autumn they call out to find each other, huddle up and keep warm.
This conservation area fosters birds by providing the right mix of grassy fields and trees for them to hide from predators, find food and lay eggs. Despite areas like Happy Holler Lake and the CRP program, quail populations have declined across Missouri for 25 years, according to conservation department studies.
Less land in CRP means even less land managed specifically to protect birds like quail, pheasants and songbirds. And as farmers cultivate crops, rain carries fertilizer and soil downhill into rivers and streams, harming aquatic life as far downstream as the Gulf of Mexico.
"It’s going to have some detrimental impacts," Gelnar said.
But how much impact is hard to measure, he said.
One reason is farmers are more "in tune with conservation" than 20 years ago, he said. Farmers have learned they can prevent erosion by cutting steep fields into terraces, or leaving plant debris on the ground to shield soil from rain that would wash it away.
On Dean’s farm in Northwest Missouri, the land is so steep and curvy it looks like an ancient Greek amphitheater. He tries to prevent run-off in part by leaving shattered corn stalks and husks on the field after harvest, he said.
Dean doesn’t expect to re-enroll his land in CRP, even if commodity prices drop. He believes prices eventually will jump back up each time they drop.
"I’ll just farm it through those times," Dean said.