TRIBUNE, Kan. - Surveying undulating grasslands that disappear into the western Kansas horizon, retired farmer Joe Govert pointed out parcel after parcel no longer enrolled in a federal program that pays property owners not to farm environmentally sensitive land.
The arid, wind-swept ground stripped of topsoil by Dust Bowl storms has laid undisturbed beneath a protective cover of native grasses that took two decades to re-establish under the Conservation Reserve Program. But millions of those acres are being plowed again after the 2008 Farm Bill capped the program at 32 million acres.
More than 3.4 million acres nationwide were taken out of the program in September when the owners' contracts expired. Most of them were in Texas, Colorado and Kansas, but hundreds of thousands of acres also came out in Montana and the Dakotas.
The environmental and economic repercussions could extend beyond the nation's Heartland with a greater risk of new dust storms, soil erosion and water pollution. Farmers also worry more grain will mean even lower commodity crop prices.
CRP pays landowners not to farm easily eroded land, while splitting with them the cost of establishing vegetative cover. The goal is to reduce soil erosion and sedimentation in streams and lakes, improve water quality and establish wildlife habitat.
The program has created millions of acres of habitat for quail, pheasant, prairie chickens and other wildlife and established filter strips and forested buffers to protect streams, lakes and rivers from sedimentation and agricultural runoff.
In return, farmers receive annual rental payments on 10-, 15- and 20-year contracts. With payments averaging $51 per acre per year, the program cost about $2 billion in fiscal year 2008.
Govert, 85, put all his land — about 750 acres — in the program in 1987 and got rid of his farm equipment. His contracts expired last month and for the most part cannot be extended.
With the government checks ending and property taxes and other bills to pay, Govert said he has little choice but to break up the ground to farm again — or sell it to someone who will.
"This stuff has roots," he said as he looked glumly across a field in Greeley County near the Colorado state line. "It is well established. This is what hurts. It took years to get it established."
But much of the land can be farmed again without harming the environment, said Adrian Polansky, director of the Farm Service Agency overseeing CRP in Kansas. Modern agricultural practices, such as no-till farming, curb soil erosion. CRP also gives a higher priority for re-enrolling the most environmentally sensitive acres.
Polansky also noted the program was more about the economy than the environment when Congress authorized it amid the farm crisis in 1985.
"We had producers, landowners, banks, suppliers that were in dire financial straits," said Polansky, himself a third-generation farmer. "So in those early years ... It was in a sense an economic rescue-type program to stabilize land prices."
Still, CRP was criticized early on for hastening the decline of rural towns. With fewer farmers tilling the ground, farm equipment dealerships closed and grain elevators consolidated. Many farmers moved away, and government payments often went to absent landowners.
By the time lawmakers scaled down the program in the latest farm bill, CRP protected 39.2 million acres with contracts expiring between now and 2012.
Bringing the land back into production is not expected to reverse the loss of small family farms: Today's growers can farm vast tracts with modern equipment, seamlessly absorbing new acres into existing operations.
But it could stimulate rural economies, with more sales of fertilizer, seed and other supplies; more business for grain elevators; and lower costs for corn, grain sorghum and other feedstocks used by ethanol plants and livestock feedlots. Lower commodity prices also might help reduce food prices for consumers.
Land auctions are already drawing farmers eager to expand their holdings. Govert said land he bought in 1950 for $55 an acre now sells for nearly $900 an acre, and a recent auction averaged as much as $1,100 an acre.
In some areas, change is in the air — literally. Thick plumes of smoke rise from thousands of acres where native grasses are being set afire in preparation for tilling. Most of those rough acres are expected to be seeded into wheat or grain sorghum, hardy crops that can survive in low quality soils and arid climates.
But even as some farmers expand, many worry about the effect on commodity markets when there's already a global grain glut.
"The timing of this is absolutely horrible," said Vance Ehmke, who farms near Healy in west-central Kansas. "You have all these acres coming out (of CRP) when the bottom has come out of the grain market. All we need is more ground going back into production."