Third-generation rancher Tony Malmberg remembers driving down a road in western Nebraska with his grandfather 38 years ago and watching clouds of blowing dirt darken the sky above their heads.

"A bunch of Kansas farmers had come in and bought a bunch of this sandhill country and were plowing it up," says Malmberg.

His grandfather compared it to the rampant sodbusting of the 1920s, which helped create the 1930s Dust Bowl. The scene stuck with Malmberg, who went on to co-found the Savory Institute, which advocates for improvements in livestock management. Today, he raises grass-fed cattle in eastern Oregon. But he still laments the continued cycle of agricultural overproduction and the resulting environmental destruction.

"Why do we keep doing this over and over again?" Malmberg asks.

When crop prices rise, farmers plant fencerow to fencerow, even on marginal land where the soil washes off or blows away. When prices inevitably drop, many farmers enroll some of their less-valuable land in federal conservation programs, removing it from production. The largest and most successful of these land-retirement schemes, the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, pays farmers about $1.7 billion yearly in exchange for a 10- or 15-year promise to idle land with the highest risk of erosion. Doing this also protects a lot of wildlife habitat, particularly for declining grassland birds, and reduces soil erosion by an estimated 450 million tons a year.

But now, CRP is facing a triple threat: Crop prices are high, so farmers didn't renew contracts on 4.4 million acres last year, and they aren't enrolling enough new acreage to make up the loss. The federal budget crisis has put farm conservation programs on the chopping block. And the new farm bill -- which funds farm conservation and other subsidies as well as rural development -- hits Congress next year. In May, 72 agribusiness groups, including livestock producers who want increased grain production for cheap feed, and fertilizer companies eager to maximize sales, asked Congress to put new "flexibility" in CRP -- letting farmers pull out without penalties even before their contracts expire.

Groups like Ducks Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation are defending CRP, but many conservationists and farmers agree that the program could be improved. "CRP is a really hard and confusing issue," says Jeff Schahczenski, an agricultural economist at the Montana-based National Center for Appropriate Technology. Farmers have a "love-hate" relationship with it, he says, because even though it provides income, they dislike leaving land unproductive. Idaho farmer Bill Flory, former chairman of the state's Soil and Water Conservation Commission, says CRP, which can enroll up to 25 percent of a county's farmland, constricts the rural economy. "There's been some counties that basically production agriculture has been retired from the area ... and all the related infrastructure has left."

The conservation program began with the 1985 Farm Bill, and its primary focus was preventing erosion. But by the next bill, wildlife and hunting groups were using CRP to benefit game birds like pheasants and ducks as well as imperiled species like sage grouse and prairie chickens. Now, farmers can plant mixes of native seeds to help pollinators as well: A violet flower called gayfeather is planted for the yellow-banded bumblebee, for instance, and fuzzy-tongue penstemon for Western bumblebees.

Farmers aren't allowed to graze livestock on that planted grass, even though it could help their bottom line. And without tools like rotational grazing, which can help control weeds in reseeded areas, habitat in Western CRP lands can degrade as grass dies and piles up, killing deliberately seeded native plants, says Washington State University ag extension agent Steve Van Vleet. Grazing income could also ease the pressure on farmers to take land out of CRP when crop prices run up. The rate for CRP payments is based on cropland rental rates at the beginning of a contract period. So a farmer who signed up in North Dakota in 2001 for $35/acre might now be able to make $200/acre growing corn, if he took those acres out.

Malmberg would go one step beyond grazing and allow farming on most CRP land, but with a catch: "The 10 years of payments (should) buy a conservation easement, so this land will be managed sustainably going into the future." One recent effort approaches this; the federal Conservation Stewardship Program pays farmers who implement conservation measures on working lands. It took off after the 2008 Farm Bill; in July it surpassed CRP in size, at 37.4 million acres.  But the stewardship program has its own congressional foes and also faces potential cuts.
Schahczenski, the economist, understands why agribusiness and farmers might begrudge CRP its unproductive acres. It could better target riparian corridors and areas of sensitive wildlife habit instead of letting whole farms enroll. Perhaps half the existing CRP acreage could fall into a system more like the stewardship program, he says. But he also argues there are some acres that belong out of production: "There is land everywhere in this country that fundamentally should not be farmed."