For almost 20 years, the federal government has paid farmers to convert some of their land to natural habitat for plants and animals. The Conservation Reserve Program is designed to protect the creeks and rivers that border farms. This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expanding the program to take on an additional two million acres, including 132,000 acres in Illinois. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports:
For almost 20 years, the Federal Government has paid farmers to convert some of their land to
natural habitat for plants and animals. The Conservation Reserve Program is designed to protect
the creeks and rivers that border farms. This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is
expanding the program to take on an additional 2 million acres, including 132,000 acres in
Illinois. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports:
Ted Gilles farms about a thousand acres along the Spoon River in Central Illinois. But the land
closest to the river doesn’t look much like a farm at all. This land was once planted with rows of
corn and soybeans and contained an area for his cattle to graze. Now it has rolling hills with
trees, and an assortment of prairie grasses.
“This here is probably, it’s not in flower now, but this is what they call the grey-headed
coneflower, which is a yellow one. There’s some blooming up there if you see that yellow one
Gilles is proud to show off the 300 acres of his land that is in the Conservation Reserve
Program. Before it was converted to a natural prairie, the soil, herbicides, and fertilizer from
Gilles’ farm would flow nearly uninhibited into the Spoon River, down to the Illinois, and
eventually to the Mississippi River. Now this land acts as a buffer and a filter. Gilles says he sets
aside time every day to visit his natural preserve.
“Like yesterday morning, I probably saw twenty pheasants in this half a mile, out along the edges,
catching grasshoppers. It’s really nice. It makes you think it’s really worth for it for doing all
It’s situations like Gilles’ that led to the U.S. Department of Agriculture adding to the
Conservation Reserve Program this year. Paul Gutierrez is the Assistant Deputy Administrator
for Farm Programs at the USDA. He says the CRP is meeting the goals of finding a voluntary
way to get farmers to protect land that is at risk. Guiterrez says the biggest obstacle to getting
farmers to act in a more environmentally friendly manner is finances. He says that’s why CRP
“They still have their mortgage payments out there. They still have operating costs, property
taxes, and if they can look at a way to look at these lands that may not be as well-suited for
farming, and a way to partner up and save the environment, then they are definitely going to look
to help the environment out while still being able to feed their families.”
Environmental groups are generally supportive of the program, but they caution it might not
always be the right way to help rivers and streams. Ken Midkiff is the Director of the Clean
Water Campaign for the Sierra Club. He says while the Sierra Club supports the CRP, they
would like to see something that lasts longer. Midkiff says the program’s biggest weakness is
that farmers only have to protect the land for ten years.
“There’s nothing that prevents a farmer from resigning. But basically the Conservation Reserve
Program is for a set period of time. These are marginal lands, lands that aren’t very productive
for typical corn and soybeans. So we would like to see those set aside for longer periods of time.”
Midkiff says in terms of protecting bodies of water, ten years is barely enough time to undo the
damage that can happen in just one or two years. He also worries that if crop prices go up,
farmers will be quick to pull up native prairie grasses and replant crops.
(sound of nature)
Ted Gilles says low crop prices did get him into the program, and may be why he stays. He is
also a fan of seeing more acres brought into the CRP.
“I think that’s great. I really think that’s the way it should be. I think we have an abundance of
grain and the prices is low. So why not helping everybody by doing it this way, you know?”
Gilles also says he has come to love this portion of his farm, and crop prices would have to be
very high for him to give up on his flowers and pheasants.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.