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Government land conservation is soaring in South Dakota, but some fear a reversal


A federal program pays farmers to keep marginal land out of crop production, and South Dakota enrollments are higher than they’ve been since the 1990s.

That helps wildlife and the environment. But market forces could reverse the trend.

Jim Faulstich has been managing his grassland in central South Dakota for half a century.

Decades ago, he enrolled some of it in a government program. It's called the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). It pays farmers to set aside land that's environmentally sensitive. Farmers get some money, and the public gets benefits like cleaner water and more wildlife habitat. The land also fights climate change by storing carbon.

South Dakota enrollments currently total 1.7 million acres, according to April data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s the most acres since 1998.

Faulstich credits higher payments.

"They were way too low to be competitive in the past years. Now that they're more competitive with actual rental rates, it's generated a lot more interest."

Payments to South Dakota landowners enrolled in CRP climbed from $56 million in 2011 to $101 million by 2019. And since then, enrollments have increased by 600,000 acres.

But now, numerous factors could pressure farmers to put more land into crop production. These include higher prices at the grocery store, the loss of Ukrainian agriculture production, and new federal authorization for higher ethanol blends.

Deepthi Kolady is an associate professor at South Dakota State University. She says taking acres out of conservation programs is the wrong choice.

"Because mostly they are marginal lands, and to produce on those marginal lands, using these fertilizers, which are very highly-priced, may not be economically sustainable, and may not be environmentally sustainable.”

South Dakota rancher Zach Ducheneaux oversees CRP as administrator of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. He says farmers and ranchers are committed to the program.

“All of that static is going on about the Ukraine and crop production and crop prices, but producers see this as a viable option — to keep this land in conservation practices because they're clearly seeing the benefits.”

Ducheneaux points to livestock grazing allowed on those acres during a drought season as one example of an additional benefit for farmers and ranchers.

And Ducheneaux is optimistic about the program's future.

“There's several of those large land-based tribes in South Dakota that have an opportunity to take advantage of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and do reservation-wide conservation planning for the first time ever.

"So, we're working specifically with some of the tribes in that state and others to try to bring those agreements to bear so that we can do multiple watershed-level conservation planning.”

The original intent of the Conservation Reserve Program was to reduce excess crop production and help stabilize markets. Agriculture in the early 1980s was in a crisis, partly from federal policies that encouraged fence-row to fence-row farming.

Joshua is the business and economics reporter with SDPB News.