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OPINION

Conservation Reserve Program offers many benefits

Steve Lekwa
Naturally Speaking

I like looking for areas enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) as I drive around Iowa. They’re the areas where it’s most likely to see wildlife. The CRP first appeared in the Food Security Act of 1985. It provided incentives for farmers to retire environmentally sensitive land. The saying went, “farm the best – save the rest.” It was also hoped that the program might reduce supplies of corn, wheat and cotton where surpluses often reduced prices available to farmers.

The CRP idea was hardly new, though. The Dust Bowl years of the 1930s brought about the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936. It was clear that something drastically different needed to be done to protect vulnerable soils. The act encouraged more crop rotation, diversification of ag practices, plus the planting of more grass, forage and legumes to rebuild soil fertility and carbon content. There was support for the use of cover crops and the installation of terraces. I find it interesting that 80 years later, cover crops are finally becoming part of main-stream agriculture. I saw more harvested fields planted to cover crops this past fall that ever before.

Story County’s CRP planting projects almost all use native seed mixes that the local Pheasants Forever Chapter makes available at special rates.

The 1950s brought the Soil Bank, a program that paid farmers to take land out of row-crop production and seed it down to grass. Farms were still small then compared to today and usually included fence rows, small grains, hay land and even pasture, in addition to row-crops. It was an ideal combination for pheasants and their populations grew to many times what we see today. Contracts to “bank” land for three, five or 10 years were available from 1956 to 1960. Nearly 29 million acres were enrolled by 1960.

The Agricultural Act of 1961 included federal cost-sharing for watershed and flood control projects. Watershed management is gaining acceptance as a prime consideration for soil conservation and water quality today. The Food and Agriculture Act of 1965 added a cropland adjustment program that paid to divert cropland to conservation practices, enhance wildlife habitat and forests, and increase recreation uses. Contracts for five and 10 years were offered.

The idea of cropping the best land and protecting less productive and highly erodible land is still at the core of agriculture policy. Other areas of Iowa often have more land enrolled into the various CRP programs. A much higher percentage of our local area falls into “the best class” of land. It is, therefore, more likely to remain in row-crop production. Options are still available to divert even some of that top-quality land into permanent cover. They include practices known as Bobwhite Quail and Upland Songbird Buffers, Riparian Buffers, Pollinator Habitat Incentive, Wetland Restoration, Tree Planting, Conservation Reserve Enhancement (CREP) projects and more.

Buffers are strip plantings around the edges of fields, along streams and around ponds that typically feature diverse seed mixes of native flowers and grasses. Story County’s CRP planting projects almost all use native seed mixes that the local Pheasants Forever Chapter makes available at special rates.

National CRP acreage peaked in 2007 at around 36 million acres. Only about 22 million acres were enrolled in 2020, but many of those projects were specifically targeted in areas where they’d do the most good. The seed mixes, planting practices and mid-contract maintenance requirements of today mean that the quality of the projects is significantly higher than it was in the early days of the CRP program. 

The first CRP planting I was involved with was a pure stand of switchgrass on a sandy soil area southeast of Ames. It was certainly better than the row-cropping it replaced, but a far cry from the diverse native plantings we see today! Let’s hope that CRP, or something like it, remains an important part of agricultural practice well into the future. Soil, water and wildlife habitat quality will all benefit.

Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at 4lekwas@midiowa.net.