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Vilsack sees ‘no significant’ gains from opening Conservation Reserve

The United States stands ready to provide food aid overseas if it is needed in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a letter to grain merchandisers. At the same time, the letter closed the door to suggestions for the emergency planting of crops on land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve, saying it would be impractical.

“While it is clear there are no significant short-term gains to be realized from opening the program to crop production, I want to emphasize that USDA will continue to monitor the crisis in Ukraine and its global reverberations,” wrote Vilsack, mentioning two USDA food donation programs. “We are providing data and agricultural expertise and stand ready to take action to mitigate these challenges.”

Ukraine and Russia are two of the largest wheat exporters in the world, and Ukraine is also a leading corn supplier. The invasion has driven up commodity prices, disrupted grain shipping, and prompted forecasts of higher food prices in vulnerable countries.

An amalgam of farm, food processing, and retail groups suggested on March 23 that crops could be grown on up to 4.1 million acres of “prime” farmland in the reserve. In his reply, Vilsack said that there are more than 100 million acres of prime land in pasture, range, and forestland outside the reserve. Quickly converting Conservation Reserve land, planted to vegetative cover, to cropping “is clearly unfeasible, even if we were to overlook the negative consequences of increased erosion, reduced water quality, wildlife habitat reduction, and decreased carbon sequestration and storage.”

Contracts expire on September 30 for 4 million of the 22.1 million acres now in the reserve. “Our data reflect the reality that, with higher commodity prices, producers are not re-enrolling all of these acres. … There is no need to step in and adjust the program when producers themselves are making decisions based on market conditions and environmental realities,” said Vilsack.

In a March survey, farmers told the USDA that they plan only a marginal increase in cropland this year. The Prospective Plantings report estimated that 317.4 million acres would be devoted to the two dozen “principal” U.S. crops, which range from corn, wheat, and soybeans to sugarcane, potatoes, and dry edible beans. Last year, there were 317.2 million acres of principal crops.

The USDA accepted 5.3 million acres into the Conservation Reserve last year and is aiming for the program’s 25.5 million-acre cap on enrollment this year. A “general” enrollment for large tracts of land ended on March 11, and sign-up for the Grasslands option opened on Monday. The Conservation Reserve, created in 1985 to take fragile land out of crop production, pays an annual rent to landowners who agree to idle land for 10 years or longer.

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