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Respond to Ukraine invasion with emergency crops on Conservation Reserve, says economist

If the Biden administration wants to boost U.S. grain production in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it should open the 22-million-acre Conservation Reserve for crop production this year, said University of Illinois economist Scott Irwin on Wednesday. Grain prices have soared, with wheat hitting a 14-year high, on the possibility of Ukraine and Russia, major exporters of wheat and corn, being knocked out of the world market for months.

“The only policy lever that I can think of in the hands of the US gov’t is to open up the Conservation Reserve Program for cropping on a one-year emergency basis,” Irwin wrote on social media. “I realize a chunk cannot be easily put back into production, especially in a month or two. Just change the rules on an emergency basis so it can be cropped if a farmer wants to risk it this year.”

The practicalities of restoring idled land to production with the planting season on the horizon could limit farmer response to a one-year opportunity, said ag economist Joe Glauber. “It is about the only policy lever one could think of using. I’m not sure how much land you’re actually going to get.”

A USDA spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

European agriculture ministers raised the idea of letting farmers put fallow land into protein crops during a meeting on Wednesday, reported Reuters. The French agricultural cooperative InVivo said that waiving EU land set-aside rules could increase cropped acreage by 10% to 15% and boost wheat production this year. Russia and Ukraine grow 14% of the wheat in the world and account for 28% of the global wheat trade.

Enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is highest in the wheat-growing Plains and the corn-and-soybean-raising Midwest. Texas, Colorado, South Dakota, Kansas, and Iowa account for 9.6 million acres of the 22.1 million acres currently enrolled in the reserve, according to a monthly USDA summary.

Half the land in the Conservation Reserve entered the program as grasslands or through the “continuous enrollment” option for high-priority projects, such as wind breaks and filter strips, on small-scale parcels. About 46% was accepted during “general” enrollments for fields and large tracts. The CRP was created in 1985 and pays landowners an annual rent in exchange for idling marginal land for 10 or 15 years. Owners are required to plant the land to vegetative cover.

An ongoing drought in the Plains could discourage plantings there. The lion’s share of U.S. wheat production is winter wheat, grown mostly in the central and southern Plains and the Pacific Northwest. That crop was planted last fall. Spring-planted and durum wheat is grown mostly in the northern Plains.

“I see the supply shock as a wheat problem first and a corn problem second,” said Irwin in an email. “Yet we need wheat acres first. This of course fits what is most available in the CRP, at least in theory.”

Ukraine and Russia grow a minor share, around 4%, of the world corn crop but hold 17% of the export market. The United States is the world’s largest corn grower and exporter.

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