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HIGH PLAINS GRIFTERS

part 2 of 2
Concerned about the massive erosion washing billions of tons of soil off private lands each year, Congress in 1985 enacted several sweeping conservation measures. CRP was by far the biggest.

The idea was simple. In exchange for taking "highly erodible" cropland out of production, the government would pay a farmer rent for ten years. Under CRP, the average payout per acre came to about $40 a year. More than 36 million acres are currently enrolled in the program.

Mired in a deep economic slump, Colorado took advantage of CRP faster than any other state. In the first two years of signups, the state's farmers enrolled 1.3 million acres in the program; they eventually removed about 2 million acres from production. Of the ten counties in the country that receive the most CRP payments, five of them--Baca, Washington, Kit Carson, Weld and Kiowa--are in Colorado. And although the legislation specifically limited enrollment of a single county to 25 percent of its available cropland, more than a dozen Colorado counties exceeded that.

Congress tried to put other limitations on the program. For example, a single farmer was eligible for no more than $50,000 a year in CRP payments. But inventive farmers discovered that restriction was not difficult to get around.

Take Four MVR Farms, for instance. It had ten partners, so each of them qualified for close to the $50,000 limit. As a result, the company's total contract came to nearly a half-million dollars a year in CRP subsidies. In fact, for a time Colorado boasted the two largest CRP contracts in the country: Four MVR Farms and a farm in Baca County. (The Baca County contract was later broken up because of "inconsistencies," according to a county conservation worker there.)

In the ten years it has been in existence, the Conservation Reserve Program has enjoyed incredible support. That's primarily because, as advertised, it did prevent erosion.

"That's not just pie-in-the-sky," says Dean Loukonen, who works as a soil specialist in the Natural Resource Conservation Service's Eads field office, in Kiowa County. "The land here was deposited by the wind, and it can be blown away by wind. I remember times we'd call off board meetings because it was so dusty. We haven't seen that since CRP. So it did tie down the land."

The program also improved water quality. And it is tremendously popular with hunters, who have found that land left untouched by tractors and combines is a big attraction to deer and other game animals.

Yet, as the Conservation Reserve Program approaches its expiration date this year, critics have raised tough questions, starting with the cost. At $19 billion, "CRP is an expensive way to reduce the environmental problems linked to agricultural production," a 1993 report prepared by the General Accounting Office noted. "Other conservation initiatives use strategies that cover more acres of cropland, cost less, and provide more enduring benefits."

And by deciding to rent the land for a decade rather than buy it outright--in many instances for several times what the purchase price would have been--the government has painted itself into a corner. In local surveys, many farmers have said that if Congress votes not to continue the CRP payments, then they will plow up the land. That would start the erosion process all over again. "These guys aren't just [keeping the land idle] because they're nice guys," Loukonen points out. "There's got to be something in it for them."

Although it is talked about less often, the Conservation Reserve Program had another purpose: to bolster the sagging farm economy.

"According to USDA officials," the 1993 GAO report states, "it is important for CRP to meet its target enrollments to satisfy the program's other objectives, including curbing the production of surplus commodity crops and supporting farmers' incomes."

Put another way: "The other reason for CRP was to buoy really low wheat prices," explains Jim Miller, a spokesman for Colorado's Department of Agriculture.

The money being sent to farmers made the program popular with more than just environmentalists. Local bankers liked it, too. "There's no doubt that CRP has put money into the farmers' pocket," says Michael Lening, president of the Federal Land Bank in Lamar, in Prowers County. "One of the things we look at when we give a loan is the ability to repay. And CRP gave a steady income that farmers could rely on and that we could rely on. That definitely made a difference."

That steady flow of money has inspired many bankers and Main Street merchants to lobby hard to convince Congress to renew the program. Of course, for local communities to benefit from the Conservation Reserve Program as intended, the government money must be sent to local farmers. It hasn't always worked out that way.

Thanks to Four MVR's--and, for a brief time, Davis's--aggressive experiments in Colorado farming, by late 1985 the old Beaty ranch was eroding at a rapid enough rate to qualify for the government's sweeping new soil-conservation program. "If they'd kept it as a ranch," observes Harlan Fletcher, "there wouldn't have ever been any CRP on it."

In the fall of 1986, according to Department of Agriculture records, the Four MVR Farms partners agreed to idle nearly 12,000 acres for ten years, thus qualifying for $402,000 in annual CRP payments. Several months later, in March 1987, the Canadians sold the entire spread to a Missouri corporation called Interstate Agriservices, Inc. It was owned by a man named David Davenport.

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