Iowa farmers weary of seeing productive farmland idled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) have caught the attention of Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst.

The Iowa senators are pressing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for answers on how the program is being administered, citing concerns raised by farmers in recent months about entire farms, some composed of very productive farmland, being enrolled in CRP at high rental rates. A group of beginning farmers meeting with Vilsack in Iowa last month said reports of new CRP contracts paying more than $300 per acre were not uncommon.

Iowa Farm Bureau members also raised the issue in a meeting with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) deputy undersecretary Michael Scuse earlier this month in Washington, D.C.

Affects young farmers

"Some of us think CRP is hurting young farmers by taking good, productive ground and putting it into a 10-year program," said Kody Trampel, a Hancock County Farm Bureau member.

Randy Francois, who farms in Delaware County, said a landowner near him recently enrolled a 160-acre field with a corn suitability rating (CSR) of 87 into the CRP program. He proposed a limit on the percentage of a farm that can be enrolled in CRP, with emphasis on the most environmentally sensitive acres.

"I understand if you have field borders or along a creek … that’s important. That should be in CRP, but not the whole field," said Francois. "There should be a vegetative index. If it’s above a certain threshold, it should not be allowed to be in CRP."

Beginning farmers say they are competing with the government even on marginal acres as they seek pasture ground to graze cattle.

"CRP has put such a high floor on rental rates, my business is almost unviable," said Donnie Conway, a Monroe County cow-calf farmer.

Scuse said the USDA adjusts CRP rates based on average farmland rental rates in a region.

"What we’re seeing is the influence of high commodity prices in 2013 and 2014 that caused everyone to jump rental rates," he said.

Lagging formula

In a letter to Vilsack, Grassley and Ernst noted the USDA formula lags behind current market rates and asked if a competitive analysis is conducted before enrolling acres in CRP.

"While we understand the three-year average formula that explains the rental rates adjusting slower than the market, we have not been able to explain why so many high quality farms have been enrolled as opposed to more marginal lands," they said. "Some young and beginning farmers have lost land as their landlords have decided to enroll their farms in CRP instead of renting it to be farmed. With the competitive nature of farming today, you can imagine how young farmers feel losing productive farmland to CRP."

Grassley and Ernst said CRP is an important program that provides environmental benefits, but they want to ensure the program "is properly administered and stays true to its original intent while using taxpayer dollars in the most effective manner possible."