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The 1985 Farm Bill originated some major conservation programs, one of which is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). This program sets aside 36.4 million acres of environmentally vulnerable land (Ervin, 1998). Under CRP, farmers agree to retire eligible lands for ten years in exchange for annual payments, plus cost sharing to establish land cover such as grasses or trees. About ten percent of the U.S. cropland base has been protected in this way, at a cost of about $1.8 billion a year (Burt and Alt, 1995). This land was placed under contract and planted into permanent vegetation, which eliminates herbicide and fertilizer use on that land.
The Conservation Reserve Program has had significant temporary gains. A study in 1994 showed that erosion was reduced by 70% on the highly erodible lands in the CRP program (Burt and Alt, 1995). This reduction is significant because the amount of fertilizers and pesticides reaching surface water through runoff is greatly reduced. These results should have a significant effect in the Gulf of Mexico, but considering the complexity of the transport mechanism of the Mississippi River system it might take a while to adjust. Despite this success the future of these lands remains questionable because the ten-year contracts are running out, which will probably result in some of the land being returned to production. For now the CRP has been extended, actually there will be another CRP sign up for farmers during January-February 2000 (contact local USDA service center to find out more information). Hopefully most of these highly erodible lands will remain out of production and not contributing to the hypoxia problem in the Gulf of Mexico.