Feds find $2 billion to fund next round of CRP

Washington, D.C. – It’s not a pot of gold at the end of a
rainbow, but $6 billion in savings through renegotiated crop
insurance contracts will allow U.S. Department of Agriculture
Secretary Tom Vilsack to make good on a pledge to keep as many
acres as possible enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

While $4 billion in “new” money will be used to pay down the
national debt, the other $2 billion will allow Vilsack to open the
first CRP enrollment since 2006. Up until Thursday, June 10, there
was no clear picture of where Vilsack was going to find the funding
to pay for the CRP enrollment that he promised while attending
Pheasant Fest in Des Moines, Iowa, in February.

Now, the $2 billion in crop insurance savings is going to allow
the USDA to protect nearly twice as much acreage as Vilsack had
hoped in February, according to Dave Nomsen, St. Paul-based
Pheasants Forever’s vice president of government affairs.

“The USDA’s announcement is going to give them the funding base
needed to help Secretary Vilsack live up to his pledge to keep CRP
enrollment at or near 32 million acres,” Nomsen said. “This will
allow them to accept a substantially larger pool of acres and
contracts (than could have been retained or enrolled) prior to the
decision about the funding. Back in February, when Vilsack made his
pledge at Pheasant Fest, we were looking at a general sign-up of
between 1.5 and 2 million acres. Now it may be upwards of double
that amount – nearly 4 million acres or so.”

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership also praised the
USDA’s work in renegotiating crop insurance rates that helped the
agency realize the $6 billion in savings.

“This decision by the USDA marks a victory for
agricultural-lands conservation and the sportsmen-conservation
community,” said Tom Franklin, TRCP director of policy and
government relations in a press release. “These Farm Bill programs
are crucial to our country’s ability to sustain private-lands fish
and wildlife habitat – habitat that forms the bedrock of outdoor
traditions for millions of Americans.”

News about the funding filtered out on Thursday, June 10, as
Nomsen and other members of Pheasants Forever attended the Outdoor
Writers Association of American conference in Rochester. During an
interview there, Nomsen said PF is now waiting for the USDA to
complete an internal process that will give PF and its Farm Bill
biologists the details that will guide bids from private landowners
who wish to enroll acreage in CRP during this next general
sign-up.

Once PF receives that information, its Farm Bill biologists will
begin scheduling “learning sessions” or seminars for private
landowners so the landowners can learn how to best prepare their
bids.

“We haven’t had a sign-up since 2006, so we will have to have a
refresher course on how to prepare a bid and submit applications,”
Nomsen said. “Once we learn the process for this sign-up, we will
use our Farm Bill biologists to look at that process and then have
them help farmers and landowners who want to submit a bid.”

One big step in that process has been completed: The USDA just
finished an environmental impact statement that is a required step
in preparing for the opening of a general sign-up.

“A number of steps are falling into place,”_Nomsen said. “Our
mission is for our people to have dirty fingernails as they
complete projects in different areas. It looks as though we will be
able to stay on mission.”

The $2 billion that will be invested in Farm Bill programs
includes releasing approved risk management products, such as the
expansion of the Pasture, Rangeland, and Forage program; providing
a performance discount or refund, which will reduce the cost of
crop insurance for certain producers; increasing Conservation
Reserve Program acreage to the maximum level; investing in new and
amended Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program initiatives; and
investing in CRP monitoring, according to a USDA press release.

Franklin said CRP_”encourages farmers and ranchers to plant
ground cover that bolsters soil, water and wildlife resources,
improving habitat for waterfowl, upland birds and wild turkeys, and
facilitates installation of filter strips and riparian buffers,
sustaining water quality by reducing sedimentation and chemical
runoff.”

Through the CRP, landowners have restored 2 million acres of
wetlands and buffers and conserved 170,000 miles of streams,
resulting in the annual production of 13.5 million pheasants
nationwide and 2.2 million ducks in the Prairie Pothole region,
Franklin said.

Nomsen said the savings from the crop insurance negotiations
will allow that kind of work to continue.

“Part of the funding will also be used to support state CREP
programs. For instance, I’m following a James River project in
South Dakota that includes public access for sportsmen – this CREP
project will be enrolled simultaneously with South Dakota’s walk-in
program. There’s some good stuff happening out there,” Nomsen
said.

“This next sign-up just got to be a bigger deal, so to speak,”
he said.

Franklin was just as pleased as Nomsen.

“We appreciate the federal government’s willingness to invest in
efforts that remain a priority for hunters and anglers,” he
said.

That good news aside, Franklin also said TRCP remains concerned
about “delays by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in releasing
regulations and funding for the Voluntary Access and Habitat
Incentive Program.”

“Open Fields, which was authorized by Congress for the first
time in the 2008 Farm Bill, provides states $50 million in federal
funds to create or enhance hunter-access programs on private lands
and has been a flagship issue for the TRCP since the group’s
inception,” he said.

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