Lawmakers worry as the nation's largest conservation program shrinks

Tom Lutey

by Billings Gazette

At the peak of the red-hot wheat bubble, Montana farmers looking for more land to seed were pulling roughly 200,000 acres a year from conservation.

The number of Montana acres set aside to control erosion or create wildlife habitat slid from 3.48 million in 2007 to 1.74 million acres in 2014, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But now that bubble seems to have deflated. Grain prices are declining to the lowest point in eight years. Congressmen and women from agriculture states are asking the USDA to help farmers find their way back to the nation’s largest private lands conservation program.

The list of lawmakers asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to maximize CRP acres included Montana Sens. Steve Daines, a Republican, and Democrat Jon Tester.

Tester, who farms and has 145 acres enrolled in CRP, said after years of declining conservation acres, farmers might need a nudge.

“The word had been out on farms that CRP is in decline and that’s true, but it’s almost beyond that,” Tester said.

The past seven years of high grain prices have been transformative for Montana agriculture. The annual value of Montana’s wheat crop in 2008 crossed $1 billion for just the second time in state history and has only dipped below that high mark once since then, according USDA statistics.

Strong wheat prices were a major contributor to higher sales value, but so was an increase in wheat acres planted. The number of million-bushel grain elevators in Montana has multiplied since 2007 with foreign companies, mostly with Asian-Pacific ties, accounting for much of the construction.

As elevators began to pop up in farm communities like Chester and Kintyre along the Montana Hi-Line, towns’ cooperatives buzzed with speculation about where the wheat would come from to satisfy these new facilities, particularly in Chester, which suddenly had two.

Farmer Gordon Stoner, of Outlook, looked at the high concentration of CRP acres in the counties neighboring the new elevators and concluded that’s where the grain would come from.

“It was very much the impression that the merchants were betting on the come of CRP,” Stoner said. “Quite honestly, they bet correctly.”

Count Stoner among the farmers who took acres out of CRP when grain prices were hot. Now with prices on decline, he’s not sure whether he’s ready to re-enroll, but he’s sure farmers will be thinking about it. Winter wheat prices are in the $4-a-bushel range after being valued twice that just a couple years ago. At $4 or $5 a bushel, some farmers won’t turn a profit, he said. For those who can make a buck, CRP may be attractive again.

But wheat isn’t the only crop Montana farmers plant anymore, as it once was, said Charlie Bumgarner, who farms in Central Montana. Farming practices have improved to the point that it’s possible to manage erosion and still farm, which is what Bumgarner plans to do.

“For me, all of mine is going to come out,” Bumgarner said of his CRP acres. “I’m going to farm it. Some of it I’m going to rejuvenate and leave it into hay. The hay market has been real good.”

“I don’t know anyone who has put ground back into CRP. My uncle was going to, but then my cousin said ‘that ground isn’t going back into CRP.’ “

Currently, the federal limit on CRP acres is 26 million nationally, and there are 24.29 million acres enrolled. On Sept. 30, another 1.9 million acres will expire from the program.

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