MINNEAPOLIS-Whether more money to conserve ex-farmland will sprout up in the new farm bill is anyone's guess.
At the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership's Western Media Summit Sunday through Tuesday, state and federal policymakers weighed in on the idea of expanding a federal program that encourages protecting land from harmful byproducts of farming.
The Conservation Reserve Program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays farmers not to intensively farm their land. For a 10- to 15-year period, farmers plant environmentally sustainable covers like prairie grasses rather than crops, and the government pays them rent in exchange for establishing an area more amenable to wildlife, water quality and erosion prevention.
The CRP falls under the multi-year farm bill in Congress. Since the last bill was passed into law in 2014, the next farm bill needs to be authored in 2018, so the clock is ticking for anyone with a stake in agriculture and conservation.
Prospects may be dire for any substantial new farm bill money in a Republican-controlled Congress under the Trump administration. However, that isn't stopping both nonprofits like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and state-level government organizations, like the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, from pushing to increase the cap on the amount of acres the USDA's Farm Service Agency is authorized to conserve under the CRP program. The quest to raise the cap comes at a time of low commodity prices, which might inspire farmers that it's worth it to idle their land in exchange for a subsidy.
Addressing the summit Monday, Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr laid out the case for increasing the national cap on CRP land from 24 million acres to 40 million. Only 2 percent of Minnesota's original prairie remains undeveloped, he said.
"CRP grassland restoration is extraordinarily important to Minnesota," he said.
Minnesota's hunting prospects are strongly tied to the program, Landwehr said. He explained how the pheasant population rebounded at the same time the CRP program started preserving Minnesota farmland in 1986.
A DNR flyer also pointed out the high demand for the program: the last signup saw 149 out of 1,367 Minnesota applicants accepted, or 11 percent. However, since peaking in 2007 with 1.83 million acres, Minnesota has since declined to 1.06 million acres as of 2016.
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar also spoke to the media summit on the farm bill just before a dinner at the Federal Premium Ammunition facility in Anoka. During a question-and-answer session after her speech, Klobuchar was somewhat guarded when asked if she thought increasing the CRP to 40 million acres was feasible. She said she was very supportive of increasing CRP acreage generally, but did not give a specific amount for a cap.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue seemed to be less inclined to make cuts than other newly appointed Trump cabinet officials, Klobuchar said. There was bipartisan support for conservation, she said, and tea party refusal to vote for the farm bill has historically forced Republicans to look to Democrats for votes.
"You never know what's going to get done, and what isn't," Klobuchar said.
She seemed to be more optimistic than the conservation partnership's notion the new farm bill would likely be a zero-sum game with little new money added, with interest groups fighting over what money was left.
"It's hard when (the Trump administration is) trying to cut the USDA by 21 percent," Klobuchar said. "But ... not just one person speaks here."
The nation's economy is stable, and congressional opinion swings toward a need for decisiveness on the farm bill, she said.
In a video message to the group, U.S. Sen. Al Franken touted his support of improving the CRP program while the 2014 Farm Bill was being created.
An attempt to contact U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, who is on the U.S. House of Representatives' Agriculture committee, was not immediately successful. His press secretary said Nolan was off the grid with family.