The dramatic statement highlighted in this column’s headline was among comments received from over 150 no-tillers who answered a recent No-Till Farmer email survey dealing with bringing Crop Reserve Program (CRP) ground back into cash crop production.

As you might guess, most no-tillers believe it’s been a mistake to lose the environmental benefits built up over the last 10-20 years by using extensive tillage to cash crop this land.

The original CRP intent was to protect sensitive land from soil erosion, avoid soil degradation, provide needed wildlife habitat, reduce grain surpluses, and let landowners set aside less productive ground while receiving government payments.

Others indicate there’s still hope for adequately protecting CRP acres if more stringent reduced tillage and soil loss rules are part of the 2018 Farm Bill. 

Some farm groups have even gone so far as to support a limitation on CRP payments — sometimes as high as $300 an acre — that unfortunately boost land rental rates for other growers.

Strong No-Till Convictions

One question asked in our exclusive No-Till Farmer survey dealt with whether extensive tillage has destroyed most of the soil protection benefits built up over the years with CRP. Some 85% of no-tillers said yes.

We also asked if the CRP program had met its promises, been beneficial and worth the extensive government investment. Only 45% felt the long-time program has been worthwhile.

Despite the fact most growers don’t believe the government should be involved in making tillage decisions, 50% felt the feds should demand that CRP acres be no-tilled. 

When bringing CRP ground back into production, 78% of these surveyed growers used no-till, while 4% relied on strip-till to protect the built-up soil benefits. Some 29% relied on reduced tillage or minimum tillage, while 15% moldboard plowed some of their CRP ground. (These figures total over 100% since some poorly managed ground needed tillage to deal with concerns, such as eliminating trees and brush.)

But it was an entirely different story when we asked no-tillers how the majority of farmers in their areas returned CRP acres to cash crop production.

Only 30% estimated no-till was the accepted practice, while 16% felt strip-till was being used. An estimated 29% relied on reduced tillage or minimum tillage, while an amazing 25% moldboard plowed the ground.

The Good and the Bad

Several surveyed growers who no-tilled CRP ground indicated fields that enjoyed a 10-20 year rest now contain some of their healthiest soils.

While other surveyed no-tillers agree with the CRP benefits, they still see long-term problems and concerns. Many maintain high corn and soybean prices a few years back led to extensive tillage of CRP land.

Others claim investors buying land have abused the CRP program.

They’ve seen gross violations, such as not eliminating trees and brush, with little or no penalties. 

One no-tiller who wanted to re-enroll CRP ground was told by the Farm Security Administration that he must disc the ground twice, reseed and add a pollinator crop.

Others indicated that when CRP contracts were not renewed, many farmers in their areas went back to full-width extensive tillage. Within 5 years, this land was in worse shape than before it was originally accepted into the CRP program. 

A large-acreage Great Plains cotton producer and cattleman indicated CRP land in his area is not productive and absentee landowners own most.

Unfortunately, all most want to do is cash their government checks without spending a nickel on essential CRP management practices. 

Many surveyed growers maintain the many benefits of no-tilling expired CRP ground should stand on its own merit.

Yet, they also recognize that social and cultural influences and a lack of soil health knowledge have pushed agriculture back to square one when it comes to maintaining and building soil productivity.

While CRP has definitely saved soil and provided some recreational opportunities, it’s also been responsible for large amounts of highly erodible native grasslands being shifted to row crops.

If everyone would protect the land with no-till, manage soil health and not farm marginal land, there likely would be no need for CRP.