CRP: Pheasants or food?

July 24, 2008 07:00 PM

Steve Cornett

Upfront disclosure: Your reporter has some Coyote Recovery Program (CRP) land; and, in fact, has applied to graze it; and, in further fact, is among the hundreds who put up fence; and, in final point of fact, had cattle on the CRP when the cease and desist order came down.

You know the story. USDA said the need for feed was great enough to constitute an emergency. They said we could graze CRP a little bit this summer. The aim was to slow the liquidation of the cow herd.
But the National Wildlife Federation sued and there was an injunction that was partially lifted last week. It lets people who had already been approved stay on the CRP, and provided steps a few others can take to get some grazing.

The way I read the judge's order, I will be allowed to graze my CRP, but that's not the point here. The point is we're out of grain and there's a drought and this judge was asked to choose between pheasants and food for people and he chose pheasants. 

You'll note at that there is much discourse on the CRP early out program. I'm not sure when we've had as many opinions expressed on a subject of interest to cattle producers—and many of them are sputtering mad at NWF and the judge.

Short-term, the National Wildlife Federation may have a bit of a victory here. But long-term, they have fouled their own nest. Gosh, we thought they were friends!
For one thing, the birds don't know CRP from private pastures. In the parts of the world where CRP will be grazed, the alternative for many producers to grazing their few acres of CRP is to overgraze their many acres of non-CRP land. 
That will hurt the wildlife more than the bit of judicious grazing USDA has in mind.

Second, much of the CRP land in this country needs some management to make it more hospitable for wildlife. Grazing and haying can improve habitat.

And third, our friends in the wildlife movement may have lost an ally or two in what will be their uphill battle to keep USDA from releasing millions of acres from the program later this year.
We should remind them that when this land was bid into the program, the lease value of those acres was next to nothing. I can't speak for you, but lease rates around here at probably double what they were just a few years ago on all types of land. Existing CRP payments won't be nearly as competitive as they were. 
All things being equal, a CRP owner with some marginal ground might prefer to keep the land in the program. But now that we know the Wildlife guys think it's theirs to manage by court edict, USDA will have a lot more takers if it does offer an early out. Some, judging by the Agweb comments, just might out of spite.
The word at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association meeting was that USDA would already have approved early release for 2009 if Dick Cheney the quail hunter hadn't stopped it.
Cheney and his fellow wildlife travelers forget that the word "reserve” was put there intentionally. The land wasn't "retired.” It was "reserved” for when it was needed.
That, near as I can tell, is now.  I mean, take a look at grain prices. 
I've been riding the fence on the early release question. I know there are millions of acres in the program that are no more erodible than the places across the fence that stayed in production. I was there when the program went into effect. I know that the owners' financial status and age were more important than land quality in deciding which land went into the program. 

On the other hand, I don't share Tanner Ehmke's ( editor) view that CRP was the major culprit in the demise of farm communities these last couple of decades.
The CRP program was put into place because of the farm crisis of the 80's. It was the aftermath of that crisis and all the consolidation that followed that did most of that harm. The timing was more coincidence than cause and effect.
If you really want to know what happened to rural communities, look to other farm policies. Look to the unlimited payments. Look to programs that virtually guarantee average farmers with average luck a modest profit—and with the exception of boom years, assure a loss to anybody below the line of average. If you tried, you couldn't invent a more Darwinian system for driving consolidation.
Those programs—and the emerging technology that has made large scale agriculture more practical—are the reason farm communities are drying up.
All in all, the CRP program was a good idea. At the time it was instituted, the government was paying me and other grain farmers hundreds of dollars per acre to farm surplus corn. We were using scarce water and fertilizer and fuel to produce crops nobody needed.
Don't' ask me to defend those policies. I won't.
But CRP payments are a fraction of what USDA was already paying out on most of that land.
Times have changed. The (un)rainy day has arrived. It's time to let the best of that land out and let it produce food. That's why we reserved it.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him by e-mail at


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