A lot of people that aren’t aggie nerds like me have never heard of NRCS, or the conservation reserve programs. Until the New York Times covered them, anyway:

Thousands of farmers are taking their fields out of the government’s biggest conservation program, which pays them not to cultivate. They are spurning guaranteed annual payments for a chance to cash in on the boom in wheat, soybeans, corn and other crops. Last fall, they took back as many acres as are in Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Environmental and hunting groups are warning that years of progress could soon be lost, particularly with the native prairie in the Upper Midwest.

I don’t blame the farmers at all–at a time of increasingly high prices for food, they are finally able to get a decent price for crops.

In order to qualify for Conservation Reserve, lands have to be marginal for agriculture–they are highly erodible, or near a watershed where runoff (or standing water) is an issue. The land may be so dry that irrigation is impractical for commercial crops, and blowing soil is a risk. These borderline lands rarely are income producing–except when the Conservation Reserve pays the farmer to convert the land to native plants and trees.
Or, prices go so high that these areas become more profitable to farm–the current situation.

This loss of land from Conservation Reserves also comes at a time when research about the programs suggests they have a beneficial effect on bird populations:

“The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a key provision of the Farm Bill, is doing more for birds than any other conservation practice in the mixed-grass prairie, and loss of CRP would have a drastic impact on regional bird populations according to a new wildlife Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) study conducted by the Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).”

(If you visit the Playa Lakes site, you can not only download their research reports, but listen to interviews with some of the participants.)

These sorts of marginal crop lands are also exactly the lands that have been predicted to become profitable–and more intensively cultivated–because of biofuel production. A lot of other things besides habitat loss happens when these lands are removed from reserve. From the Ecological Society of America Policy Statement on Biofuels:

Converting marginal lands to agriculture or farming them more intensively creates new sources of agricultural pollution and, in many cases, disproportionately increases nutrient loss and soil erosion; many of these lands are marginal to begin with because they are on sloping, sandy, or wet soils particularly susceptible to soil and nutrient loss.

I wish I had a solution–but I think a lot of birds, insects, and other animals are about to find themselves without a home.

Additional Reading:

The photo is of the Funks Grove Prairie Restoration in Illinois.

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. Interesting post, and sad at the same time. I’ve recently been privy to some talks of acquiring natural lands in perpetuity for listed species. In perpetuity makes me nervous when talking of listed species. It’s all great if perpetuity really means forever. Although, it seems humans sometimes have a different definition of what perpetuity is, and that isn’t defined as eternal.

  2. This is similar to the UK when equipment for large-scale farming became more available, and acres of hedgerows were ripped out to create larger fields. Many of those hedgerows had been there for centuries, and were bastions of biodiversity.

    The loss of conservation belts is bad news on so many different fronts — i’ts horrifying!

    Penny-wise and pound-foolish, as ever.

  3. The world is getting smaller and smaller.

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