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Harkin concerned about some erodible cropland leaving CRP

Agriculture.com Staff 02/08/2007 @ 3:39pm

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said Thursday that any plans by the USDA for early releases from the conservation reserve program (CRP) will have to be made carefully to protect fragile cropland.

Harkin was responding to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns' statement at an Ag Committee hearing Wednesday that the Department may allow those enrolled in the CRP to take land out of the program early in order to meet demand for corn for ethanol.

Johanns said the USDA would decide on any early outs from the program this summer, after the Department knows how many more acres of corn have been planted for 2007.

Harkin told Agriculture Online Thursday that he wants to be consulted by Johanns before USDA releases land from the CRP and that he wants Johanns "to be very careful" about how this is done.

Harkin said that there are three types of land enrolled in the CRP. The first, which is mainly steep, erodible land that can't be farmed, will stay in the program, he said. The third category is flat land in the CRP that could be converted to crop production with little loss of soil.

"That land is going to come out," Harkin said. "With the prices of corn and beans...there is no way that land is going to stay in the CRP."

He expects farmers to be willing to pay some penalties to take the most productive CRP land out of the program in order to raise crops.

But Harkin is worried about land that probably shouldn’t be farmed but might also pencil out to remove from the CRP, what he calls "that big gray area in the middle," land that is prone to some erosion that could grow corn or soybeans.

Harkin hopes that the next farm bill will provide incentives to farmers to keep from raising corn. But he worries that some of it might come out before the next Farm Bill takes effect.

"I'm very concerned about that," he said. "We need to put something in the Farm Bill that will keep that land from going into row crops."

One approach, he said, would be to pay landowners a reduced CRP payment, plus a payment from the conservation security program, which is aimed at working lands, and allow the harvest of grasses or other biomass to be sold to cellulosic ethanol plants. That combination might be attractive enough to compete with putting fragile land into crops, he believes. And it would provide good wildlife cover, as the CRP does today.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said Thursday that any plans by the USDA for early releases from the conservation reserve program (CRP) will have to be made carefully to protect fragile cropland.

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