Feds extend CRP signup through June 13

Contributing Writer

St. Paul Bowing to pressure from politicians and conservation
groups, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman
announced late last week a two-week extension to the Conservation
Reserve Program (CRP) sign-up.

The enrollment period has been extended through June 13. The
original sign-up period was slated to end May 30.

“Farmers and ranchers’ interest in the general CRP sign-up has
been very strong,” Veneman said. “This extension will give
producers who are busy with this year’s planting season more time
to sign up…”

The decision was hailed by conservation and hunting groups, as
well as federal lawmakers, who argued the sign-up was too short and
came at a time when farmers are particularly busy in the field. In
many areas of the Midwest, wet conditions have slowed spring
planting. In addition, several logistical problems had cropped up,
which could have hindered a successful sign-up, they said.

“We were very pleased with the extension,” said Dave Nomsen,
vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever. “It’s
a big step towards having a successful sign-up.”

First introduced in 1985, CRP is one of the most popular private
lands conservation programs in the history of federal farm bill
legislation. Wildlife officials say the program has helped spur the
growth of pheasant and waterfowl populations, while curbing soil
erosion and improving water quality to streams, rivers and
lakes.

A voluntary program, CRP pays landowners an annual “rental
payment” to restore environmentally sensitive lands to grassland
habitat and other cover, as well as a “payment of up to 50 percent
of the cost of establishing conservation practices,” according to
the USDA.

Contracts lengths are for 10 or 15 years. Under the 2002 Farm
Bill, CRP was increased by nearly 3 million acres to 39.2 million.
Currently, 34 million acres are under contract, with roughly 1.5
million acres expiring this year.

The announcement by the USDA last week came on the heels of a
request by Pheasants Forever and more than 25 other groups for an
extension. While PF asked for a sign-up that would include
“several” additional weeks, Nomsen said he’s confident that a
two-week extension will be enough time for landowners to get
enrolled.

“It appears that demand is growing at county offices, and that’s
good,” Nomsen said. “We’ve had sign-ups of a six-week period in the
past that have been of adequate length. I think we can get it
done.”

According to Nomsen and others, the crucible for farmers is
submitting a competitive bid. The Farm Service Agency, which
administers CRP, evaluates and ranks eligible CRP offers by the
so-called Environmental Benefits Index (EBI), a ranking of
environmental benefits that would result from enrolling land in the
program.

Nomsen said Pheasants Forever and the FSA, among other groups,
can help educate landowners on how to submit a competitive bid. “We
will use educational forums to discuss which cover types, for
example, farmers can use to increase their scores,” Nomsen said.
“That’s something they can control.”

According to the USDA, current CRP participants with contracts
expiring this fall covering roughly 1.5 million acres can make new
contract offers, which, if accepted, will become effective on Oct.
1. All contracts awarded for the new sign-up will become effective
either at the beginning of the new fiscal year Oct. 1 or in October
of 2004, whichever the landowner chooses.

Minnesota currently has 1.7 million acres enrolled in CRP. South
Dakota, the nation’s premiere pheasant hunting state, has roughly
1.4 million CRP acres.

The USDA has been criticized in recent weeks by conservation
groups on a proposal that would modify some CRP rules, including
“emergency haying” on some years. The end result could be
detrimental to ground-nesting birds, namely game species such as
pheasants and ducks, and the environment, say wildlife
officials.

Ducks Unlimited, which sent a letter to the USDA about its
concerns, said that to maintain the wildlife benefits provided by
CRP across large portions of the Great Plains and the arid western
United States, haying, grazing, disking, and other disturbances
should be limited to no more than one in five years. The proposal
is for one in three years.

In addition, wildlife officials say that CRP lands should not be
“disturbed” during the primary nesting season, from roughly April
15 to Aug. 1. That would allow for undisturbed nesting for ducks,
pheasants and scores of other ground-nesting birds, wildlife
officials say

Since its inception, CRP has been credited for providing some of
the most productive waterfowl nesting habitat in North America.
Studies have shown that CRP lands yield high nest-success rates,
sometimes tripling that of other habitat. CRP lands that are hayed
are much less attractive to breeding waterfowl, wildlife officials
say.

For more information on conservation programs, contact the Farm
Service Agency or Natural Resource Conservation Service office. For
information on submitting a competitive CRP bid, contact PF at
1-877-773-2070 or check its website at pheasantsforever.org.

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