Agricultural conservation programs have provided multiple benefits to farmers, ranchers, wildlife and the general public, but as Congress works to incorporate big spending cuts in the next farm bill, funding for those programs will shrink. To help inform Congress and public about potential economic impacts of conservation policy decisions, the Council on Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics (C-FARE) this week released the “Conservation Crossroads” series of reports from top economists. The group held a news teleconference on Tuesday to brief the media on the reports.

The series includes the following titles:

  • Top Ten Design Elements to Achieve More Efficient Conservation Programs, Prof. David Zilberman, University of California at Berkley and Prof. Kathleen Segerson, University of Connecticut
  • Economic and Environmental Effects of Agricultural Insurance Programs, Prof. Daniel A. Sumner, University of California at Davis and Prof. Carl Zulauf, Ohio State University
  • Examining the Relationship of Conservation Compliance and Farm Program Incentives, Prof. Otto Doering, Purdue University and Katherine Smith, American Farmland Trust
  • Implications of a Reduced Conservation Reserve Program, Prof. JunJie Wu and Prof. Bruce Weber of Oregon State University

The reports demonstrate that although cuts to conservation programs can have far-reaching economic impacts beyond simply reducing payments to farmers. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), for example, might seem an unnecessary expense, particularly during times of high commodity prices. Removal of land from the CRP can increase crop acreage and potentially boost farm revenue in the short term, but those gains come at the expense of environmental and less-direct economic benefits.

Based on their analysis of academic studies of CRP’s costs and benefits for example, the researchers estimate the value of reduced soil erosion from CRP at $653 million per year or $20 per CRP acre per year. Reductions in soil erosion offers on-site benefits such as higher future crop yields and less fertilizer use, and off-site benefits such as reduced sedimentation of waterways.

Recreational benefits related to habitat provided by CRP land, such as upland bird hunting, provides a value of $963 million per year, or $29 per CRP acre per year.

 Increased value of agricultural land due to CRP participation adds up to $1.1 billion per year, or $34 per CRP acre per year. The researchers also found that CRP helps add value to developed land in the area, amounting to a value of $789 per year or $24 per CRP acre per year.

The researchers conclude that the economic benefits of the CRP outweigh its costs to taxpayers, and that large reductions in land enrolled in CRP will result in losses of those economic and environmental benefits.

“The changes made to conservation programs as part of the current policy context will have profound effects on our nation’s ecosystems, natural habitats, water quality and other critically important ecosystem services for decades to come,” said Damona Doye, Chair of C-FARE and Farm Management Specialist at Oklahoma State University.  “Just as importantly, these changes will also impact the livelihoods, farming productivity, and the well-being of rural communities across the nation.  The Conservation Crossroads in Agriculture series is designed to provide unbiased, high-level analysis from esteemed economists so that decision-makers have the most reliable, timely and actionable information available to them as they make these important decisions.”

Access the Conservation Crossroads reports from C-FARE.