Dave Weaver, Associated Press
OMAHA, Neb. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants landowners to commit 4 million acres of land this year to a federal program that pays farmers not to farm fragile acres, but the agency's top executive said Friday the 25-year-old program might need to be changed in the next farm bill.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a visit to Omaha that allowing landowners to grow biofuel crops like switch grass on land in the Conservation Reserve Program might improve the habitat for wildlife while making the CRP more economical.
"We're looking at whether it makes sense to use CRP land for biofuel," he said. But Vilsack did not specify what that would mean for the program.
Vilsack said all the farm bill programs will have to be examined closely for effectiveness because of the growing federal deficit.
"The realities we're going to face in the next farm bill are going to force us to be as creative as possible," he said.
Jonathan Coppess, administrator the Farm Service Agency, said the USDA will try to strike a balance between conservation and production needs as it plans for the future of the Conservation Reserve Program.
"We need to do our best to focus the limited dollars we have to make the best investment," Coppess said.
The Conservation Reserve Program now keeps about 31 million acres of environmentally sensitive land from being farmed, and Vilsack said the program has been exceptionally successful at limiting erosion and reducing runoff pollution while improving water quality and establishing wildlife habitat.
The program has created millions of acres of habitat for quail, pheasant, prairie chickens and other wildlife and established filter strips and forested buffers to protect streams, lakes and rivers from sedimentation and agricultural runoff.
In return, farmers receive annual rental payments on 10-, 15- and 20-year contracts.
The new sign-up period Vilsack announced Friday at the national Pheasants Forever convention in Omaha begins March 14 and runs through April 15 for contracts that will begin in October.
Some 4.4 million acres could come out of the program this year because contracts are expiring. USDA hopes to sign up 4 million acres to offset that loss.
U.S. Department of Agriculture: www.usda.gov
Conservation Reserve Program: www.fsa.usda.gov/crp
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