Dale Thorenson has a photo of a postcard-perfect sunflower field in full bloom on the farming operation he runs with son Kelly near Newburg, N.D. Clearly, this is land that’s suitable for crop production – yet it’s technically classified as type I or class A land eligible for the Conservation Reserve Program.
Much of this type of productive land has been enrolled in CRP since the program’s early years, going back to the late 1980s. Many of these enrolled acres were in the prime sunflower growing areas of the Plains, stretching from North Dakota down to Texas.
Of the 34.7 million acres enrolled in CRP (the current acreage cap is 38 million), about half of them, nearly 17 million acres, are located in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Texas – the prime sunflower production region of the U.S.
A huge amount of CRP land – about 16 million acres, over half of which are in the seven sunflower-producing Plains states – will expire in 2007, when the 10-year contracts end. Coincidentally, that’s the same year the current farm bill is set to expire. With a federal budget deficit looming over a new farm bill, and program cuts all but certain, the National Sunflower Association is suggesting that one solution which makes sense is to simply allow class I or type A land to be brought back into production.
Thorenson, the NSA’s legislative representative in Washington, D.C., will be spotlighting that suggestion as debate on the new farm bill draws near. “It’s a good bet that not all expiring CRP acres will reauthorized to be put back in. Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, especially on the coasts, are not crazy about CRP, since they view it as a regional program, so there will likely be an effort to redistribute the program funding anyway.”
The protection that CRP gives to land, water, and wildlife is an important issue for environmental and wildlife groups. Mike Clemens, a Wimbledon, N.D. farmer and president of the NSA, says that these groups may be more willing to accept reduced CRP acres if more program emphasis is placed on the quality of acreage in CRP, not quantity.
“Some environmental groups are critical of the program now, with some acres that have poor and unmanaged cover. They are willing to consider a lower number of CRP acres in exchange for better management and oversight of remaining program acres,” he says. “There is a great deal of interest in promoting quality CRP acres with grass species or other habitat designed for particular wildlife species.”
Many in the sunflower industry would welcome a return of land highly suitable for sunflower production, to increase sunflower acres and build a more stable and reliable supply of NuSun™ oil. Some of the nation’s most prominent food processors and oil users are interested in NuSun, but are hesitant to switch or commit whole products and processes to an oil produced from a crop that has declined in acreage.
There are other key complaints about CRP: Some are displeased with the program’s effect on adjacent land values and per acre rental rates. And the program has been criticized for its impact on local communities in high CRP areas. The USDA completed an exhaustive study which concluded that “on the average, local communities have not been impacted. Many still challenge that conclusion, especially those in the seed and chemical input business.
“No question, there are a lot of acres enrolled in CRP now that would be excellent for crop production. If farmers would have to choose between less CRP or cuts to loan rates or direct and counter-cyclical payments, I would think most would choose CRP,” Clemens says. “I think this is an area where a lot of common ground can be made among those at the forefront of the farm bill debate.” – Tracy Sayler
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