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Farmers want to take land out of conservation to grow more corn

As part of the Conservation Reserve Program, farmers are paid to put in grassy strips to act as buffer zones along waterways. (Photo by Lester Graham)
As part of the Conservation Reserve Program, farmers are paid to put in grassy strips to act as buffer zones along waterways. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Leaders in Michigan’s farm community are urging Senator Debbie Stabenow and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to change the rules for a land conservation program on farms. They say the current program could lead to higher food prices.

When farmers agree to put their land into the Conservation Reserve Program, they sign a lease agreement: the government is basically renting the land to keep it out of farm production. These kinds of deals are made on land that might erode into streams or rivers. The government wants to prevent erosion and farm chemicals from running into the water. The lease agreements run from 10 to 15 years. If farmers want out before their contract is up, they have to pay.

Sam Hines is vice president of the Michigan Pork Producers Association. He says pork producers need more corn. He says the price of corn is so high right now, and there’s just not enough of it. Hines wants Senator Stabenow, who is chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to consider changing the program:

“To take a look at perhaps allowing people to get out of the program on an early release without penalty, in order put some of the productive land that’s in the program in crops.”

Hines says if something isn’t done, he expects food prices to rise:

“If pork producers can’t access adequate grain stocks, they will have to cut back on their levels of production, that will make even less pork or protein available at the meat counter, and the prices will go even higher.”

Hines and many others agree about the reason corn supplies are so low: ethanol mandates. The federal government requires that a certain amount of ethanol be produced every year, and that comes from corn. So pork producers and farmers now have to share the available corn with ethanol fuel producers.

Don Carr is a spokesperson for the Environmental Working Group, which specializes in farm policy. He says it would be a mistake to increase corn production on land that’s currently protected under the Conservation Reserve Program.

“It’s truly one of the only lines of defense, these conservation lands that soak up agrichemicals. They mitigate runoff, they help mitigate erosion. They protect stream banks. They’re really the only last line of defense in a lot of cases between the ravages of modern industrial agriculture.”

Carr says the answer is not to pull sensitive land out of the Conservation Reserve Program in order to increase corn farming. He says instead, Congress should roll back the ethanol mandates.

-Julie Grant for The Environment Report

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.