More of Alabama’s cropland would be available for traditional farming activities under new legislation aimed at reforming one of USDA’s most well-known programs.

The bill, introduced by U.S. Representative Martha Roby, would make changes to the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to limit the government’s growing practice of paying landowners to set aside fertile acres of cropland in long-term conservation programs.

According to estimates by the House Committee on Agriculture, Roby's proposal would save taxpayers billions.

“Applying smart conservation techniques on marginal or eroded land makes good sense, but the federal government’s use of taxpayer dollars to encourage landowners to remove acres of quality cropland from agricultural production defies logic,” Roby said. “This is especially true in a time of serious budget problems and growing demand for food at home and abroad. This legislation would help restore common sense to our conservation policy, return CRP to its original purpose, and save taxpayer money.”

Congress established CRP in 1985 to promote conservation on highly eroded lands or other environmentally sensitive land by providing payments to landowners who convert it into a vegetative cover such as grass or timber. Over time, the eligibility requirements for the program have softened to allow payments for conservation on some high quality cropland. As a result, the government now sometimes incentivizes landowners to remove fertile soil from production.

Roby took an interest in reforming CRP after area farmers repeatedly raised concerns during agriculture listening sessions she hosted throughout the Second Congressional District. Roby, who maintains a 24 person Agricultural Advisory Panel that includes representatives from every county in the Second Congressional District, said CRP reform was the No. 1 issue raised in recent meetings.

Major farmer concern

“One of the things I hear repeatedly from our farmers is that the federal bureaucracy needs to get out of the way and let farmers do what they do best,” Roby said. “The government shouldn’t compete with our farmers or the free market to determine how private land in Alabama or any other state is used.”

Under the terms of CRP, acreage is classified into eight categories based on the soil’s ability to support vegetation and crops. Roby’s legislation would over time phase out the most fertile acres, Class I and II land, from the CRP program, while also reducing the number of acres held in CRP nationwide by about 20 percent from current levels.

The legislation would not alter the government’s conservation incentives on highly eroded lands and other highly environmentally sensitive lands classified as Class III through IIX, known for their inability to support sustained agriculture production.

Nothing in the legislation would affect a landowner’s right to convert private land to timber or grasslands for conservation purposes if he or she chooses to do so.

“The goal is to strike the right balance between conservation and production. As with most government programs, CRP has grown and expanded over time,” Roby said. “Our ability to produce food and fiber is a national security concern, and we’re only hurting our ability to do this by encouraging the removal of productive land. This bill restores balance to the program.”

The Farm Services Agency administers CRP. Participants in the program receive annual rental payments, maintenance incentive payments, and cost-share assistance on land enrolled in the program. Under the rules of the program, the payment goes to the landowner, not the renter or the farmer.

CRP is just one of at least 23 conservation programs operated by the USDA. Others include Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), and the Healthy Forest Reserve Program.

Roby’s legislation, H.R. 3454, the Preserving Marginal Lands and Protecting Farming Act of 2011, was recently introduced in the House of Representatives.