Thousands of acres of idled, wind erosive Inland Northwest crop land may be protected from the plow next year by an exemption in the new federal farm program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official said Monday.
Because of health concerns raised about high levels of tiny airborne particulates, farm land west and south of Spokane may be declared a “priority area” that would make it easier to remain in the popular Conservation Reserve Program, said Larry Albin, Washington state director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.
CRP pays farmers to idle 1 million acres of Washington crop land in exchange for planting grass or trees to tie down the soil for a 10-year period.
Without the exemption, many farmers who have had land enrolled in CRP since 1985 would no longer be eligible under new rules adopted in the 1996 farm bill. That would force them next year to plow the light soil, exposing it to forceful gusts heading straight toward Spokane, a city struggling to meet air quality regulations.
Hosting a USDA hearing in Spokane on the proposed changes to CRP eligibility, Albin said officials in Washington, D.C., have assured him that the farm bill allows states to seek protection for crop land coming out of CRP in special circumstances. A state could place at least 10 percent of its crop land into a “priority area.”
“If you can make the case, and we have the support, we can go even larger,” Albin told 100 farmers, environmentalists and agri-business people at the hearing at the Joint Center for Higher Education.
Many attending the hearing supported an extension of CRP, which pays Washington farmers more than $50 million a year.
But others warned that a “priority area” could be abused by shielding farms with no environmental problems from the CRP’s stricter eligibility requirements.
“If all the land within an area became eligible for CRP, you could have whole farms retiring,” said John Fawcett-Long, coordinator of the Seattle-based Western Sustainable Agricultural Working Group. “We would prefer to have environmentally sensitive lands targeted.”
Dallen Reese, president of the Northwest Farmers Union, cautioned that locking up too much CRP land would reduce the chances for young people to get into farming and lower sales for businesses in small towns dependent on crop production.
But Douglas County wheat grower Ed Preston said farm suppliers have benefited from the steady income that CRP has provided to farmers.
“This idea that there are ghost towns because of CRP, well that’s an outright lie,” he said.
Don Phillips, president of the 3,300-member Washington Association of Wheat Growers, said 7 million acres of CRP wheat land may expire in 1997. That could trigger a huge rise in production and result in lower crop prices. He called for a one-year extension of CRP contracts to ease the land back into production and higher rents than the government paid farmers last year.
But Jonathan Schlueter, executive vice president of the Pacific Northwest Grain & Feed Association, said CRP has locked up too much land at inflated rents.
“The environmental benefits derived from continuing to idle these lands is increasingly suspect,” said Schlueter, whose organization represents 93 Washington grain handling and processing companies.