Thistles a CRP issue for some landowners

By Tim
Spielman
Associate Editor

Pipestone, Minn. — Eric Peterson, a farmer in the southwestern
corner of Minnesota, said he wants to provide habitat for the
wildlife of the prairie, mostly via the federal Conservation
Reserve Program, but that federal officials charged with
administering the program are making it tough for him to do so.
Ditto for other landowners enrolled in the set-aside program for
marginal ag land.

The rift between some landowners and CRP officials began
recently, Peterson said, as landowners whose enrolled acres are due
to expire in coming years were preparing to extend or re-enlist
their property in the program.

“If anybody said they wanted to re-enroll, (USDA Farm Service
Agency officials) came out and went through the CRP with a
fine-tooth comb,” Peterson said.

The result of the ramped-up inspections: contract violations
that federal officials say ranged from noxious weeds to houses
built on CRP lands.

Peterson said he understands the need for landowners to adhere
to the language of CRP contracts. But he doesn’t believe the weeds
– usually thistles – on his CRP should’ve resulted in the fines
that they did.

“It’s cost me $15,000,” said Peterson, who has about 300 acres
enrolled in the program, in Pipestone County. Some of his land has
been enrolled in CRP since 1986.

Peterson said the manner in which CRP contract land was
inspected this year discouraged others from re-enrolling or
extending their CRP contracts during the “REX” (re-enrollment and
extension) period.

Others, he said, would’ve applied for the program, “but why do
it when they’re looking at you with a microscope?”

Peterson said he questions whether the FSA is fully committed to
the CRP program.

“It’s time to tell people that CRP is in trouble,” he said.

Mark Zinnel, Pipestone County’s FSA executive director, said his
office’s policies regarding CRP and checks of CRP acreage haven’t
changed. In fact, he said, the state office recently told other
county office personnel that the manner in which contract
violations should be dealt with – the way Pipestone County was
doing it – was the right way.

“Our policy hasn’t changed,” he said. “I’ve been here six years,
and basically nothing has changed (regarding CRP contracts).”

Some counties, when dealing with violations such as weeds on CRP
(“cover violations”) were giving landowners grace periods, during
which they could take care of the weed issues.

“Before going to the next step, we weren’t (offering a grace
period), and that’s the way it’s supposed to be done,” Zinnel
said.

Zinnel said fines that resulted from site inspections may have
caused some county landowners to choose not to re-enroll or apply
for a CRP extension, but it’s likely increasing land prices also
played a significant role in a potential reduction in CRP acreage.
As did other factors.

“We were just below 70 percent (re-enrollment or extensions
during the REX period, which covered contracts expiring in the next
four years),” Zinnel said. “That’s about the same as the rest of
the district. And a large percentage of those were not extended
because there was no increase in the CRP rental rate.” (Landowners
only were better compensated when they were accepted for a
re-enrollment.)

Landowners can be fined for violation of extensive CRP contract
language. When it comes to weed issues, Zinnel said, the fine
generally is the cost to fix the problem (spray the weeds),
doubled. That’s the national procedure, he said.

There are about 12,600 acres of CRP land in Pipestone County,
about “mid-range for the state,” Zinnel said.

Peterson’s not alone in his displeasure with the FSA’s CRP
inspections this year. But that doesn’t surprise Greg Anderson,
agricultural program specialist for the FSA in St. Paul.

“REX required us to look at 100 percent compliance on millions
and millions of acres (across the nation),” Anderson said.

Minnesota has about 1.85 million acres of CRP. More than 1
million acres will expire within the next five years, and those
acres were potentially eligible for extension or re-enrollment.
Anderson said FSA county officials inspected some 900,000 acres
this year.

“Certainly we wouldn’t have 100-percent compliance,” he said.
“We’re probably hearing from some of those people who weren’t in
compliance.”

Typically, the FSA “spot checks” only about 5 to 10 percent of
all CRP contract land each year. But a requirement of the REX was
that all lands up for re-enrollment or an extension must be
inspected.

Nearly 90 percent of those contracts expiring next year were
re-enrolled, Anderson said. But the re-enrollments and extensions
for the following three years dropped to nearly 70 percent, with
some people choosing to consider conservation programs that allow
continuous signup, the Conservation Reserve and Enhancement
Program, putting land back into production, or other options.

Weeds were just one of the less conspicuous violations, Anderson
said. Among other things, FSA officials found cattle grazing on
CRP, roads built through contract lands, along with active gravel
pits, uncontrolled gophers, and a house built on CRP acreage.

Peterson said he has contacted federal government officials to
express his concern over how the local CRP program is conducted,
and what he believes is “extensive government regulation that needs
to change.”

Peterson estimates about two-thirds of Pipestone County CRP was
deemed out of compliance.

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