Farm bill changes might hurt conservation land
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Some farmers and conservationists are worried that Congress’ upcoming overhaul of federal farm programs could push the popularly hunted pheasant population into long-term decline.
Congress this year plans to start revamping federal farm programs including the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to plant cropland and grass that serve as cover for Chinese ring-neck pheasants.
“I think it’s going to be a great loss to South Dakota and the hunting that we’ve enjoyed for the last 10 years,” said Chris Hesla of the South Dakota Wildlife Foundation. “It’s going to devastate the pheasant habitat that we have had.”
The Conservation Reserve Program represents about $1.8 billion of the $12 billion to $24 billion set aside by the federal government for farm subsidies.
But contracts on almost half of the state’s enrolled acres will expire in 2007. And with the price of farmland increasing, the government’s per-acre payment for conservation land is not competitive enough to keep the land.
“They don’t even pay close to enough to make it pay,” said James Puffer, a Hitchcock farmer who let most of his conservation land expire this year. “They offered me something like 40 bucks. I can probably rent it out for twice that. I can’t imagine in a few years there is going to be any (conservation land) left.”
Some recent policy changes have made it more difficult to enroll good farmland as conservation land. Traditional 10-year contracts are often offered only on land with the highest environmental benefits.
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said last week that the program should get equal or greater funding in the new farm bill. They want the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider increasing payments to farmers.
But conservation land will have to compete for scarce funds with other programs, like the commodity programs that ensure farmers’ livelihoods and an inexpensive food supply for the nation.
Scott VanderWal, president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau, said the bureau wants conservation land limited to sensitive land.
“There is some land out there that’s (conservation land) that really shouldn’t have been,” he said.
But he does not expect a major blow to wildlife habitat. He said he thinks that more than half of current conservation land will stay.
Others expect grain processors and elevator owners to fight the program, which raises the price of their raw material.
But George Vandel, assistant director of the state Game, Fish and Parks Department, said there are pressures to hold onto conservation programs.
“Everything I’ve seen in previous farm bills as far as conservation has grown in importance,” Vandel said.
If conservation goals don’t turn the tide, money might, experts say.
The state has seen a rapid increase in fee-based hunting, with even nonresidents buying farmland as an investment that doubles as a private hunting ground.
Thune and others say a strong Conservation Reserve Program could benefit from the economic value of commercial hunting.
Puffer, the Hitchcock farmer, said fee hunting is the only reason he kept his conservation land.