'It Should've Never Been Broke Out': Understanding Participation in the Conservation Reserve Program in Southwest Kansas and Southeast Colorado
Steinmetz, Alexandra Corcoran Meyers
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The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) plays a vital role in restoring grasslands by removing highly erodible land from production; however, landscape-scale conservation success depends on participation. Fluctuating trends in participation suggest a need to better understand landowners' motivations for enrolling. Since participation hinges on agricultural producers' perceptions of programs, there is utility in understanding programs through their lens to ensure program design accounts for their needs. To understand what drives enrollment, I conducted immersive ethnographic fieldwork in farming and ranching communities of southwest Kansas and southeast Colorado. Through interviews and participant observation, I examined producers' reasons for participating, program perceptions, and the degree to which CRP fits with their lived experiences. I also explored challenges faced by field staff of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in working within the program structure. I used open coding to identify common themes and quotes to capture producers' and field staff's points of view. I identified several frames through which producers think about CRP and themes related to how CRP fit well or poorly with producers' and field staff's lives. Frames characterized producer perceptions of CRP as a financial savior, a way to maintain financial solvency, and to gain leverage for their operation. Additionally, CRP was framed as a retirement fund and a conservation program that provides a solution for erodible land. Lived experiences related to wind erosion and the Dust Bowl, perceived community impacts of CRP, and the cultural and economic history of the region, also influenced how producers make sense of and 'frame' the program. Guaranteed payments to maintain cover incentivize participation, especially for land which some producers believe should have never been farmed, or 'broke out', in the first place. Even so, the economic and cultural aspiration to farm may prompt program avoidance or re-cultivation of prior CRP land. In identifying program fit, many felt the program serves a noble purpose but is complicated by rules which lack 'common sense'. While producers valued the program's role in soil stabilization and increased wildlife habitat, CRP requirements during the grass establishment phase and mid-contract management do not always align with producer and field staff visions. Mixed opinions existed around suitable grass species and management practices such as disking, interseeding, and grazing. A dominant theme emerged from producers, echoed by field staff, in the benefits of grazing and need for CRP to increase flexibility to maximize grazing compatibility. Broader program concerns included a shifting program focus, inconsistent enforcement of rules, and one-size-fits-all management. Personal relationships between FSA, NRCS, and producers were generally regarded as positive, and staff members value their role in working with producers to harmonize program requirements with producer needs, within the bounds of the program. Juggling various programs with limited time and other procedural issues leave many field staff feeling overwhelmed and understaffed. Field staff expressed a desire for greater one-on-one time with producers to better communicate program requirements or amend management plans. Both producers and field staff felt CRP could be enhanced to achieve a greater conservation benefit, alleviate staff burdens, and improve overall satisfaction if program rules had both greater flexibility and regional tailoring to correlate with the variable climate and local conditions. In exploring CRP 'frames' and 'fit', this case study provides a window into the interplay of producers' lived experiences in the shadow of the Dust Bowl, and a ubiquitous conservation program's impact on the way land is used.
- Masters Theses