St. Paul – The slow drain on the federal Conservation Reserve
Program continued this fall in Minnesota – and nationwide – as the
state lost an estimated 61,000 program acres, according to the
USDA’s Farm Service Agency.
Nationally, about 2.7 million program acres were lost to
expiring landowner contracts, including more than 500,000 acres in
the Dakotas and Montana, areas revered by duck hunters for their
ability to provide waterfowl breeding habitat.
Decreases in the program, which pays landowners to set aside
marginally tillable acres for environmental and other benefits,
were expected this year, according to Scott McLeod, government
affairs representative for Ducks Unlimited. The 2008 federal Farm
Bill dropped the CRP acreage cap from around 39 million acres to 32
million acres. Following expirations Sept. 30, nationwide
enrollment fell to 31.1 million acres, DU says.
“Hopefully it won’t go much lower than that, but I’m afraid it
might happen,” McLeod said. That’s because contracts on millions of
acres are due to expire next year, and there’s been no indication
from the government that new general contracts will be offered.
The loses this year could’ve been greater. In an effort to keep
enrollment near 32 million acres, the USDA offered three- or
five-year extensions to some landowners with expiring contracts. Of
the 1.5 million acres eligible for extensions, about 1 million were
accepted, according to Greg Anderson, agricultural program
specialist for the FSA in Minnesota.
Only about 5,000 acres were retained in the state, 20 percent of
those examined. Anderson said all eligible acres nationwide were
examined, and the highest-ranking lands were kept in the program,
including some 42,000 in South Dakota, and another 33,000 in North
Still, those states both lost about 190,000 CRP acres. Combined
with the loss of nearly 140,000 acres in Montana, duck breeding
habitat will take a big hit, DU says.
“The cumulative impacts of grassland loss in the Prairie Pothole
Region, both CRP and native prairie, of this magnitude, will
eventually have significant impacts on waterfowl populations and
the number of ducks hunters see in their decoy spreads,” McLeod
said in a DU press release. Those losses come on the heels of more
than 960,000 acres in losses in 2007 and another 335,000 acres lost
in the region in 2008, according to the agency.
Current CRP enrollment in Minnesota is about 1.65 million acres.
However, about 70,000 acres could leave the program in 2010, as
well as up to 128,000 acres in 2011 and nearly 300,000 in 2012,
without a general sign-up period.
McLeod called the scenario that’s setting up for 2012 “scary.”
North Dakota alone could lose more than 800,000 CRP acres that
year, he said. Nationwide, contracts on 6.5 million acres could
expire in 2012.
Landowners in Minnesota have been taking advantage of some
aspects of the program that allow for continuous sign-up – CRP
practices that protect wetland areas and create buffer strips, for
example, Anderson said. Still, demand in the state has outpaced
acres available for enrollment.
“Interest in Minnesota (in the continuous enrollment portions of
CRP) has been huge,” he said. “But nationally, there’s not enough
acres to go around.”
McLeod said those opportunities are important, but they don’t
make up for the vast tracts of land lost to expiring contracts.
“There are just not a lot of acres available,” he said.
According to DU, the USDA currently is in the process of
conducting a CRP supplemental environmental impact statement,
expected to be completed sometime next fall. That’s a requirement
made necessary because of changes to the program in the most recent
Farm Bill. General CRP sign-up cannot occur until the EIS process
is complete, McLeod said.