US farmers want out of conservation, environmentalists resist

The current high prices for arable crops mean that farmers in the US and Europe are reconsidering whether putting their land into government-financed conservation schemes is such a good idea financially. The EU is well on the way to releasing all its set aside land back into production, and in the US Congress is considering whether to allow farmers to leave long term conservation contracts without facing any penalties.

Environmental Defense, a US conservation group, has joined with 14 other NGOs in calling on Congress to resist pressure to release 24 million acres from the Conservation Reserve Progam (roughly three quarters of all land currently enrolled in the program). The letter says:

“We urge you to protect the taxpayers’ investment in soil quality, water quality, and wildlife habitat and not allow landowners to leave CRP contracts early without fully reimbursing the Treasury for the taxpayer-funded investment in those lands.”

Currently, conservation contract enrollees who terminate their contract prior to the end of its 10- to 15-year term must reimburse the federal government for the rental and cost-share payments they have received, plus interest, and a penalty of 25 percent of the total rental payments received.

It is important to note that there is a major difference in emphasis between EU and US conservation programmes in that EU schemes are less about land retirement and more about improving practices on working lands. A European farmer who puts land into an agri-environment scheme is not required to abandon all production on the land, rather to farm the land according to higher standards of soil and conservation, apply fewer agrochemicals and take action to benefit wildlife and biodiversity.

In cases where EU agri-environment schemes do entail a significantly lower intensity of production, I have no doubt that many European farmers are already considering whether it’s worth staying in the scheme.

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