The cultural cycle of the northern Great Plains is one characterized by periods of “boom” and “bust,” meaning that prosperity rules the agricultural towns for a short while but this period is always followed by a cruel economic downturn (often coinciding with drought) that draws the younger generation away from the small towns and leaves the agricultural economy stagnant. By the mid-1908s it became apparent that the prosperity of the ‘70s was about to break.
Unfortunately, farmers had practiced fence-to-fence farming in an effort to get the most crop out of their land. And so the United States Department of Agriculture introduced a controversial effort to take this land out of production, reduce the amount of commodities produced and in so doing assist the agricultural economy with lower supply and help the environment by converting the land back to permanent vegetation.
The Conservation Reserve Program (“CRP”) exists on acreage that was once tilled up for farming crops such as corn and wheat. The majority of the soil, although potentially productive, is highly erodible due to the forces of wind. Leaving the soil fallow and tillage operations allow the great winds of the plains to take their toll. This leaves many thousands of acres with the nutrient rich topsoil forever stripped away and deposited in nearby streams, leading to a chain of environmental problems.
And so the federal government rationalized that assisting producers in seeding these acres to a permanent grass would not only eliminate environmental concerns on highly sensitive soils but also cut back commodity production in an effort to raise low grain prices. The government then pays the farmer a rental rate equivalent to what the average net income would have been if the acreage were still in grain production.
In theory, CRP should work as planned and in some cases it does. Soil erosion has been drastically reduced and acres that never should have been tilled have been converted back to native sod. Wildlife has also benefited from the vast tracts of cover that they can find, making some CRP tracts a hunter’s paradise.
But the program has had its drawbacks. The already declining population of the agricultural communities has been affected as farmers put their entire acreage into CRP and moved to the city. In some cases, rental rates for the 10 or 15 year contracts are not competitive with current day grain market prices, causing some farmers to end their contracts and break up the highly erodible soils yet again.
Arguments arise over who has control of the property as emergency haying and grazing of the acreage is requested by farmers in drought-stricken areas. Hunters tend to believe that because the vegetation on the private acreage is government-funded, they have rights to access the land. And many questions whether the vegetation is properly being managed by “plant it and leave it” policies which result in dead and dried out stands of grass which have had no grazing, harvesting or other natural means of vegetation removal, resulting in acres of fire hazards (much like our national forests) across the Great Plains.
The CRP will continue for the foreseeable future and it has become a way of life for small agricultural communities that do their best to take advantage of its benefits while forever cursing what they see as a folly of the federal government.