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 Brendan Gibbons
Near a lazy creek in northwest Missouri, a pile of chewed red apples waits on a stump as an offering to hungry deer. The apples' bright red skin, along with the burgundy splotches of poison ivy rusting in the fall, stands out in this part of the state.
So does the camouflage-colored camera recording all who pass by.
This is not a typical farm. This is wildlife habitat, a savings account for soil and a hunter's paradise, supported by the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. The program is a component of the federal Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, also known as the Farm Bill.
The bill expired on Sept. 30 due to political fighting, taking the CRP along with it and leaving uncertainty about farm conservation programs in its wake.
The Farm Bill is a complex piece of policy covering a broad range of issues, including energy, agriculture, nutrition and the environment. Private land conservation was the first of these to come to a standstill.
The CRP began in the 1950s to protect erodible farm soils. Today, the federal government pays landowners per acre to convert agricultural land into suitable wildlife habitat. The amount they receive depends on their soil's productivity and the cash-rent rate for land in their area.
Vance Vanderwerken, the landowner who installed the camera, said he has about 100 acres enrolled in the program. Vanderwerken is an elementary school principal in Savannah, Mo., and has saved most of his life to be able to buy his land.
"This is a great farm to have for recreation," he said, standing outside of the home he built on the property.
Vance Vanderwerken, Missouri landowner who has about 100 acres enrolled in the program.
Photo: Amy Bruer
Vanderwerken's taste in home décor can be summed up in four words: wood, metal, leather and taxidermy. He hunts deer and quail on his property.
"I'm an outdoorsman," Vanderwerken said. "Right now, I feel like this is the best thing I could do for this farm."
Photo: Amy Bruer
For now, anyone who might be interested in doing what Vanderwerken does is out of luck. Without a new Farm Bill or some extension of the old, no new landowners can enroll in the program.
Allen Powell, conservation specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, said landowners enrolled in the program before Sept. 30 won't stop receiving payments.
The agency writes CRP checks and administers the program at the state level. Powell said the last time the Farm Bill expired was in 2007, but Congress passed a series of extensions that kept CRP enrollment going.
"It didn't stop us dead in the water," he said.
The Missouri Department of Conservation, which helps landowners with the ecological work of turning farmland into habitat, also had to adjust.
On Sept. 21, Jeff Powelson, a conservation biologist for the department, said he anticipated the bill wouldn't be renewed. By Oct. 1, he already had to tell a landowner he wouldn't be able to sign up this year.
Jeff Powelson, private land conservationist, Missouri Department of Conservation,
based in St. Joseph, Mo. Photo: George Laur
Powelson said the day before the bill expired, he told a northwestern Missouri landowner he would not be able to enroll in the program unless Congress does something about it.
Photo: George Laur
For now, the conservation department will continue to work on private land already enrolled in CRP and wait to see what Congress decides about the program's future.
"It seems like they're waiting for someone else's decision," he said.
Bill White, the department's private-land field chief, said the conservation department relies heavily on the Farm Bill to fund its work in private land conservation.
The department receives $150 million to $180 million a year in private land conservation money from the federal government, compared with a little more than $1 million from the state, White said.
White thinks the program's future is uncertain.
"There’s grave concern they will be too involved in budget issues," he said. "There may not be time during lame duck."
Staff members for four of Missouri's nine representatives replied to a message left at their offices asking if they think the House will pass Farm Bill legislation during its next session.
"If it's a productive lame duck session, I'm sure the wrinkles will be ironed out," said Steve Taylor, communications director for Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican then representing Missouri's second district.
Via email, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, Democrat of Missouri's fifth district, called the bill's gridlock in Congress "appalling."
"The failure to pass a five-year Farm Bill leaves communities in Missouri’s Fifth District, and across the nation, in a terrible state of uncertainty," Cleaver said.
"Anything's on the table during lame duck session," said Steve Walsh, communications director for Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler, Republican of Missouri's fourth district.
Rep. Sam Graves, Republican of Missouri's sixth district, said in an email, "While I'm disappointed Congress adjourned without passing a Farm Bill, I am hopeful we can address this after the election."