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Tug of war continues over possible early CRP releases

Agriculture.com Staff 06/24/2008 @ 1:00pm

Being pulled in two directions may be part of the job description if you're secretary of agriculture. Today, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer might feel a strong stretch as two powerful U.S. senators urge a different approach to dealing with the aftermath of flooding in their state of Iowa.

Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is meeting this afternoon to urge Schafer to release all conservation reserve program land that is not highly erodible for cropping, without penalties normally charged for leaving the program before contracts have expired.

Grassley said he has never recommended that before and that "it's a suggestion that I've not made lightly.

"But the seriousness of flooding has required all of us to think outside of the norm," he said.

Grassley also said it wouldn't do much good in Iowa unless it's released in a week. "You can't plant beans much beyond the first of July and there's even a penalty on yield when you plant them as late as we we're planting them right now."

He said he has not talked about this with the chairmen of Congress's ag committees, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Representative Collin Peterson (D-MN). "They have strong views on CRP, so they might disagree with me," Grassley said.

Harkin does, in fact, disagree. After meeting with a group of about 30 farmers in Iowa Saturday, he responded to the concerns of livestock producers who are already suffering from high feed costs by promising to discuss with Schafer the releasing of CRP land immediately for haying and grazing.

But in a statement Monday from his office, Harkin opposed cropping on CRP land.

"Traveling through Iowa these past few weeks I have seen firsthand the devastation brought on Iowa agriculture by the flooding and excessive rainfall," Harkin said. "We need to find practical, workable solutions that will address the challenges. By putting land in the CRP, farmers reduce soil erosion, cut sedimentation in streams and lakes, improve water quality, establish wildlife habitat, and enhance forest and wetland resources. Recent heavy rainfall and flooding prove that CRP has done its job.

"As a practical matter, it seems doubtful that trying to plant soybeans or some other crop this late in the year on land that’s been in grass for years would be worthwhile -- especially when the loss of conservation benefits is factored in," Harkin added. "Land that is in the CRP is generally highly erodible and less productive for row crops, so it seems more benefit to Iowa can be gained by making sure CRP is available for forage to the greatest extent possible consistent with sound conservation."

USDA has already announced that More than 24 million acres of land enrolled in CRP nationally will be eligible for haying and grazing this year. USDA estimates that this program will make available up to 18 million tons of forage worth $1.2 billion. However, in order to protect nesting birds, forage could not be harvested nesting season ends. In Iowa, that's August 2.

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