Land conservation program criticized - Wheat official likens CRP to `rural cleansing'; others defend it

John Stucke
The Spokesman Review Staff writer


Washington State - Leaders of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers have taken aim at a popular federal program that pays farmers to turn fields into wildlife habitat.

Bruce Nelson, outgoing president of the wheat growers association, likened the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to genocidal policies in his final column in the monthly magazine Wheat Life.

"Maybe this isn't environmental protection but, rather, environmentalist direction -- as in rural cleansing," Nelson wrote.

His comments underscore a growing frustration in farming communities struggling through an agricultural slump.

Many blame CRP for pulling too much land out of production. Boarded-up retail shops, half-empty grain elevators and closed John Deere dealerships are visible symbols that small towns dependent on farmer dollars are in trouble.

Yet, blaming CRP for a sagging ag economy isn't telling the whole story, said Perry Dozier, a Waitsburg, Wash., wheat farmer and past president of the association.

While CRP has its problems, the program has helped keep some farmers solvent.

"Without it, there's plenty of farmers who wouldn't be here," Dozier said Monday during the association's annual convention in downtown Spokane.

Dozier has about 190 acres in CRP, most of it covering steep hillsides that are prone to erosion and difficult to farm.

"Bruce's position is going to rub a lot of people the wrong way," Dozier said.

He said farmers' opinions on CRP usually are related to whether the program works for them.

Some counties, such as Douglas, Asotin and Adams, have the maximum acreage allowed enrolled in CRP. Much of that farmland is marginal, unlike Whitman County, where the rich soil yields some of the world's best wheat crops.

Nelson acknowledged that some farmers depend on CRP and said his comments were directed at people who stick entire farms in CRP, move away and supplement their retirement savings with federal payments that average about $50 an acre.

"That's wrong," he said. "We're taking our farmland out of production, and in other countries, ... land is being ripped up and planted."

Jim Fitzgerald, state director of the federal Farm Service Agency, acknowledged the criticism of CRP but defended the program as one that Americans are willing to back financially.

Indeed, the program has support among farmers, environmentalists, hunters and others.

Without such programs, Congress would be less likely to appropriate billions of dollars in farm subsidies every year, Fitzgerald said.

"I don't think CRP is part of a conspiracy" against farming, Fitzgerald said. "For one thing, people are not that well-organized."

"You have to look at the big picture: CRP came directly from Congress," he said. "I understand those who don't like it, but it is the will of the people."

Across the country, about 33 million acres are enrolled in CRP. The government paid about $1.5 billion to spare the acreage from the plow.

In Washington, about 3,925 farmers have enrolled about 1.28 million acres in CRP. Collectively, the payout was about $65.8 million this year. In Idaho, farmers were paid about $31 million for having 800,000 acres in CRP.

Gus Hughbanks, state conservationist, said most of the CRP land in Washington state is defendable as good wildlife habitat or is at risk of severe erosion.

But, he added, there are some shifts in the way the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service will handle the next round of CRP sign-ups in the spring.

Instead of whole farms going into the program, the conservation service is opting more for buffers along waterways, for example.

Although more land is expected to go into CRP next spring, Hughbanks predicted there won't be as much in Washington that meets the agency's stricter criteria.



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