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.