USDA makes good on its earlier CRP pledge

Washington – For those who administer the conservation program
known as CRP, the latest announcement by the USDA’s Farm Service
Agency might require them to do some brushing up on Conservation
Reserve Program rules. For the first time in four years, a general
sign-up is planned. It began Monday, Aug. 2, and will run through
Aug. 27.

The sign-up is intended to bring program acreage closer to its
national cap of 32 million acres; following contract expirations
last year, and those upcoming this September, CRP acres could drop
to more than 5 million acres below that level without a general
sign-up (a total of 4.5 million acres enrolled will expire this
fall).

Currently, CRP enrollment stands at about 31 million acres,
according to Jim Miller, a USDA under secretary who addressed media
members during a conference call July 26.

“Usually (a CRP contract) is a 10-year commitment,” Miller said.
“But they can be up to 15 years.”

In a press release following the tele-conference, Miller said,
“(The) announcement will help us create a greener and healthier
America, and I encourage all interested farmers and ranchers to
contact their local FSA office to learn more about how to take
advantage of this opportunity.”

CRP has been around since the 1980s, and peaked at about 36.7
million acres nationwide in 2007. With expiring contracts and no
general sign-ups, enrollment has slowly slid the past few years,
and threatens to accelerate in coming years.

It’s a voluntary program that assists farmers, ranchers, and other
agricultural producers to use their environmentally sensitive land
for conservation benefits, according to the FSA. Producers
enrolling in CRP plant long-term, resource-covering grasses in
exchange for rental payments, cost-share, and technical
assistance.

Besides general CRP sign-up, which constitutes the largest amount
of program acreage, there’s also continuous CRP, which includes
smaller tracts of land where conservation practices are implemented
(and sign-up, as stated, is continuous), and the Conservation
Reserve Enhancement Program, that combines with state dollars for
longer-term land protection.

The goals of the program are many: improved water-quality, erosion
reduction, wildlife habitat benefits, air-quality improvement. The
program also reduces production of some ag commodities.

Officials said it’s uncertain if the general sign-up announcement
signals the direction the Obama administration will take regarding
the future of the program. While millions of acres are set to
expire this year, future expirations could be even more
devastating.

According to the FSA, 4.4 million acres will expire in 2011,
another 6.5 million in 2012, and 3.3 million in 2013.

Wisconsin’s CRP future follows a similar track. Currently the state
has about 428,516 acres in the program as of June.

“We did have 31,550 acres that expired in 2009, but we made
extension offers to most of the contracts,” said Susan Butler, FSA
conservation specialist in the Wisconsin office.

As for the current sign-up, Butler said some counties are expecting
a lot of interest, other counties not so much.

“We haven’t had a general sign-up in four years and during that
time we’ve had a number of contacts from landowners wondering when
they can apply – those requests increased since last February when
Secretary Vilsack announced this general sign-up at Pheasant Fest,”
she said.

Butler added that there is no way to know how many CRP acres
Wisconsin might gain this time around because all applications are
ranked against each other, with only the most cost/habitat
efficient applications being accepted.

“The only cap we’re working under is the national cap of 32 million
acres. There are no allocations made to states – a general sign-up
is a competitive process based on an index formula,” she said.
“There is no way to know what we can hope to enroll. It’s all based
on that nationwide evaluation.”

Wisconsin’s CRP participation hit a peak in 1995 with about 720,000
acres enrolled in CRP. That numbers has been declining ever
since.

Lands become eligible for CRP enrollment because of a number of
criteria. Parts of the state score points for water-quality and
wildlife habitat benefits, while the southwest counties do well in
the erosion-control category. Meanwhile, other areas of the state
enroll acreage because land rent is cheap.

The same rule can be applied to the Midwest; the Dakotas and
Montana feature vast blocks of CRP land where rental payments are a
fraction of that of other areas of the nation.

Prepping for sign-up

Conservationists and agency workers learned earlier this year that
a general CRP sign-up period likely was on the horizon, so they’ve
acted accordingly.

State FSA officials say there’s been a lot of preparation prior to
this, getting ready for a sign-up, and they expect there to be
plenty of landowners testing the eligibility waters.

Land that is not enrolled in the conservation program, or that
which is expiring Sept. 10, is eligible for this year’s
go-around.

All applications will be evaluated after Aug. 27.

Brandon Willis, a deputy administrator for the FSA, said farmland
planted to crops this year is still eligible for the program:
“Sign-up won’t be affected, even if the crop is harvested after
Oct. 1,” he said during the tele-conference.

Officials said they will monitor CRP general sign-up, ensuring
there’s room for continuous CRP and CREP to grow, without
surpassing the 32 million-acre cap. More about CRP, and the
location of FSA offices, can be found at
www.fsa.usda.gov/crp.

Reaction

Conservation groups, eager for another CRP sign-up and a bandage on
its bleeding acreage, responded favorably.

Pheasants Forever officials said they expected interest in the
program to be strong, given that federal land rental rates should
be updated, and possibly increased in some areas.

“CRP continues to be a good option for producers to ensure income
on the tough-to-farm and lowest producing areas,” said Dave Nomsen,
vice president of government affairs for PF and Quail
Forever.

According to a PF press release: “Today’s announcement also
resonates with pheasant hunters, as CRP acres provide the top
nationwide habitat component in producing pheasants.

“Just three years removed from record-setting pheasant harvests (in
Minnesota and the Dakotas), hunters have been disappointed in the
6.5 million acres that left the Conservation Reserve Program
without a general sign-up,” the press release states.

Nomsen also said the program is essential to stronger rural
communities.

Editor Dean Bortz contributed to this report.

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