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Increase U.S. food production in response to war in Ukraine, says key senator

The Biden administration should encourage larger domestic food production to blunt the disruptions in global supplies created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said the Republican leader of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday. Arkansas Sen. John Boozman said the land-idling Conservation Reserve, if needed, could provide millions of acres of cropland and pasture “to address both inflation and food security concerns.”

“There’s been no change in USDA’s position,” responded USDA spokeswoman Paige Blanchard. Last week, the USDA said it was not considering suggestions for emergency cropping of the Conservation Reserve. There are currently 22 million acres enrolled in the reserve, and the USDA said a few weeks ago that it hoped to expand enrollment to the statutory cap of 25.5 million acres this year.

Landowners face a deadline on Friday to offer fields and other large tracts for entry into the reserve. Created in 1985, the Conservation Reserve pays an annual rent to landowners in exchange for idling fragile cropland. Some 10.2 million acres of the land in the reserve were enrolled through such “general” sign-ups. The rest was accepted for high-priority projects, such as filter strips along waterways or preservation of grasslands and wetlands.

“With inflation at a 40-year high, and global food prices reaching a new record last month, the administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should focus on policy options to increase domestic production of food,” wrote Boozman in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “To that end, I request to delay the sign-up deadline for Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) until U.S. farmers have a better understanding of potential supply disruptions associated with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Commodity prices have skyrocketed at the prospect that Russia and Ukraine, two major exporters of wheat and corn, may be out of the international market for months. If warfare continues into the spring, crop production could suffer. Boozman said U.S. farmers should be given time to decide whether to grow crops this year or put land into the long-term reserve.

The Conservation Reserve is one of the few tools available to the government to affect crop plantings. The 1996 “Freedom to Farm” law eliminated most USDA controls over crops. Boozman said the USDA also could offer “maximum flexibility” for farmers to buy crop insurance on spring-planted crops.

If conditions in Ukraine worsen, the USDA could allow ranchers to graze livestock on Conservation Reserve land, normally off-limits, or grant a one-time waiver for farmers to plant spring crops on land in the reserve that is not at risk of erosion or other damage, said Boozman. “There is the potential to provide farmers with access to millions of acres of cropland and pasture that would have otherwise remained idle in order to address both inflation and food security concerns. This should be a top priority.”

The United States is the world’s largest agricultural exporter and could “ensure food security at home and around the world,” said the Arkansas Republican.

Since the invasion two weeks ago, price increases “have been massive for wheat, large for both spring wheat and corn, and small for soybeans,” said University of Illinois economist Joe Janzen on the farmdoc daily blog. “Given the timing of the conflict, winter wheat supplies are likely to be constrained longest as northern hemisphere acreage response cannot occur until the 2023 crop. This implies high wheat prices may persist for some time. Corn, soybean, and spring wheat prices are also elevated, but 2022 production outcomes are relatively uncertain.”

Winter wheat, the dominant U.S. variety, is planted in fall, goes dormant during the winter and is harvested in late spring or early summer. “For winter wheat, supply response cannot come quickly,” said Janzen. Spring wheat is harvested in late summer or early autumn.

The USDA was scheduled to release its annual Prospective Plantings report on March 31. The report is based on a survey of up to 80,000 growers during the first two weeks of March.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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