Reuters / North Dakota farmer Justin Zahradka will plant wheat this spring on 40 acres that has been off limits for two decades, protected by a government conservation program that is shrinking as high crop prices make farmland more valuable.
The 18-year-old high school senior leased the land a year ago from a neighbour who opted not to re-enrol it in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, a scheme that pays farmers and landowners nearly $2 billion annually to leave land idle in order to protect wildlife and the environment.
After loosening up the soil with vegetables last year, he has high hopes for a good harvest. His acres are part of a total 1.7 per cent rise in the number of acres of U.S. field crops that farmers are projected to plant this spring, according to the latest USDA plantings survey.
But while a record acreage could ease food supply fears, it comes at the risk of disrupting wildlife including bald eagles that migrate across North Dakota.
“Obviously there isn’t any more land being made,” Zahradka said. “With the high commodity prices, there’s an interest in gaining more land to get a greater profit.”
A growing number of young farmers like Zahradka have been outbid for established cropland in the Midwest. For them, the CRP territory offers a rare chance to join the biggest agricultural boom in a generation, although the land in the conservation program is not the most productive.
This year, contracts covering more than 6.5 million acres worth of CRP land will expire, the second-largest turnover in its 26-year history. The amount of land in the reserve will fall to the lowest since 1988, down 20 per cent from a peak of 36.7 million acres in 2007.
To encourage producers to put more acres back into the program, the USDA this month increased a one-time signing bonus for those enrolling land that has been deemed among the most environmentally sensitive. The bonus now will be $150 per acre, up from $100.
The potential loss of protected acres “is concerning to a lot of various interests” including wildlife and environmental groups, said Jay Hochhalter, conservation specialist for North Dakota’s Farm Service Agency, a branch of the USDA.
In North Dakota, contracts covering almost 840,000 acres are expiring, more than any other state.
However, putting land back into production isn’t easy.
Justin Zahradka and his dad Jeff know the challenges after buying 160 acres that had been in the conservation program for decades. They spent weeks loosening the soil and then planting radishes and turnips, known as “earth’s little drillers,” to help replenish moisture and nutrients. But the family is eager to acquire more land as Justin and his sister want to farm.
“It takes quite a few acres to make things work,” said Jeff.
North Dakota farmer Anthony Mock was in high school 20 years ago when owners were putting their land into the program because of low crop prices, making it tough for him to break into the business.
Younger farmers “never had that chance to rent land,” he said.
“To me, it was a bad program to start with, with good intentions,” he said. “This day and age, when our population is exploding… it’s not good for the economy.”