Soaring food prices are threatening to unravel one of the nation's most far-reaching conservation programs. The Conservation Reserve Program started in the mid-1980s as way to create a floor for commodity prices. Now that there's a shortage of key crops such as corn and soy, critics question why the Agriculture Department pays farmers $1.8 billion a year to do nothing with 34 million acres. Agriculture Secretary Edward T. Schafer, who is reportedly evaluating the program, should consider opening up some of the land to farming while continuing to protect the most environmentally sensitive acres. Mr. Schafer is reportedly delaying a decision until a federal court in Seattle decides whether to block the release of some conservation land for low-impact cattle grazing and hay growing. At a hearing last week, U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour ordered the federal government to compromise with an environmental group that brought suit and extended a temporary restraining order until Tuesday.




Under the Conservation Reserve Program, landowners enter into 10- to 15-year contracts with the Agriculture Department, agreeing not to plow part of their property in exchange for a fixed annual payment. To opt out of the contract, landowners must refund all the money received from the program and pay a penalty. In 2006 the USDA renegotiated many of the contracts that would expire by the end of the decade. The department offered owners of the most environmentally sensitive acreage new long-term contracts and owners of less sensitive land shorter contract extensions.




This seemed wise until commodity prices started to soar a few months later. Now owners of environmentally sensitive acreage have the incentive to opt out of contracts and plant crops; owners of less sensitive land face prohibitively steep penalties to do the same. Enrollment in the program dropped by 21 percent last year, and experts believe protected land will decrease by 20 million acres over the next 10 years if the USDA maintains its current policy.




A smaller program is inevitable. Mr. Schafer should take a proactive approach and waive opt-out penalties for owners of less environmentally sensitive land. This would free up funds the USDA could use to bid on expiring contracts of sensitive land and to revise the 2006 contracts. Farming land now in the program isn't a long-term solution: The United States should reconsider subsidizing the production of ethanol, responsible for much of the increase in corn prices since 2006.




It will take a year for former conservation land to produce crops, and the impact on prices won't be dramatic. But waiving penalties for select landowners would free up the 10 million to 15 million acres that agricultural economists say is necessary to lower food prices without endangering the most fragile land.




"" The Washington Post