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Thousands of CRP acres set to lapse back to cropland in Minnesota

ST. PAUL (AP) - Almost a third of the two million acres of Minnesota wetland set aside in the Conservation Reserve Program could leave the program in the next two years and go back to cropland.

The CRP contracts between the state and farmers are expiring, and with rising commodity prices farmers are finding they can make more by farming the lands. That's got some conservationists worried about the impact on the environment.

"A healthy wetland ... removes nitrates, removes phosphorus, keeps the water clean flowing into our lakes and rivers," Kevin Lines, conservation easement manager for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, told Minnesota Public Radio News. "These things provide the public with a huge number of benefits that are difficult to put a cost on or a benefit factor on."

The conservation easements began during the farm crisis of the 1980s, less as a way to protect the environment and more as a way to get money into the rural economy. It pays farmers to take marginal land out of production, promising not to plow the land for 10 to 15 years. They plant native grasses or allow trees to grow up.

Last June, Lines had a goal of adding another 120,000 acres to the program. But farmers would only commit to 8,000 acres. Lines said he's frustrated, but understands the economics involved.

"The landowner has to make a living today, they want to send their kids to college tomorrow, so programs have to be competitive," Lines said. "We can't get all these public benefits from private landowners without some cost to society."

When CRP started, corn and soybean prices were low. Today they're rising, the value of land is increasing, and farmers say the programs don't offer them enough to set the land aside.

Two years ago Bill Grimm, who raises corn, soybeans and hogs in southwestern Minnesota's Renville County, signed up to put about 30 acres of steeply rolling land into conservation reserve. But before he could even plant the wild grass seed, circumstances changed.

"During that winter of '06 and '07 the commodity prices substantially went up, and being I hadn't seeded it yet, there was an option to opt out, and I went ahead and did that," Grimm said. "There was a small penalty I guess to do that, but with the commodity prices, I figured I'd be better off farming it."

Even with reduced yields because of a dry year, Grimm made a profit of about $300 an acre after expenses. CRP would have paid just over $100 an acre.

Tom Kalahar, with the Soil and Water Conservation District in Renville County, is worried that if enough conservation acres are lost the state could face a water quality disaster.

"We bring all that marginal, fragile farm land back into crop production, and corn crop production which is very agriculturally intense as far as pesticides, and fertilizers, and erosion-prone, I mean that's why it was in the program in the first place," Kalahar said. "We bring all that back into crop production and we're going go backwards very, very, very fast."