Vilsack says CRP signup set for May

Minneapolis — With the nation due to lose 3.3 million acres of federal Conservation Reserve Program acres this September due to contract expirations, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced another round of general CRP signup to take place beginning in May this year. The announcement was made at Pheasants Forever’s Pheasant Fest, held in Minneapolis last weekend.

“By ensuring that CRP remains strong, vibrant and an economically viable option for producers, we can ensure impactful conservation efforts in the years to come – including healthy wildlife habitat in every corner of the nation,” Vilsack said in the PF press release.

Currently, total CRP enrollment stands at about 27 million acres; the enrollment cap is 32 million acres. For much of its history, beginning in 1990, CRP acreage has topped 30 million acres, peaking in 2007 at about 37 million. Since then, acreage has slid.

It’s unknown how many acres will be offered for the program this spring – or how many will be accepted by federal officials – but last year during a general signup, about 3.9 million acres were placed under contract; about 4.5 million acres were offered.

Vilsack also announced the USDA will review soil rental rates “in an effort to keep CRP competitive with current near-record commodity-driven land prices,” according to the press release.

Finally, Vilsack told those assembled at Pheasant Fest that the extension of the 2008 Farm Bill through 2013 reopens enrollment for Continuous CRP acreage – “1 million acres reallocated in 2012 to some of CRP’s most targeted and effective practices. …”

Minnesota gained about 100,000 acres during last year’s general signup period, but lost 290,000 as contracts expired last September. This year, about 130,000 contract acres are due to expire in a state that now boasts about 1.4 million total CRP acres.

For groups like Pheasants Forever, the timing of the announcement couldn’t have been much better.

“We absolutely needed these tools to be delivered now,” Dave Nomsen, PF vice president of governmental affairs, said in a press statement. “Considering the massive habitat losses experienced as a result of lasts summer’s drought and the fact producers are planning their spring plantings right now, this was a critical announcement for farmers, hunters, and conservationists.”

Nomsen said review of rental rates is key right now to program success.

“We shouldn’t just have conservation when we have $3 corn,” Nomsen said. “We should have it, too, when we have $7 and $8 corn.”

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the average rental price for nonirrigated cropland last year in Minnesota was about $150 per acre, up from $135 per acre in 2011.

Land that meets CRP criteria, however, typically is marginal in an agricultural sense. For most of the late 1980s and early ’90s, the average CRP rental rate in the state was around $55 per acre. By 2007, it had risen to about $60 per acre, and last year, it was almost $70 per acre. The payment per acre varies greatly across the state.

By comparison, the average CRP rental payment in South Dakota last year was about $60, while in North Dakota it was less than $40 per acre. In Iowa, the average was more than $130 per acre.

Steve Kline, director of the center for agriculture and private land for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said the timing of the CRP general signup also is important because of the “Farm Bill limbo” in which conservation finds itself because the 2008 bill has been extended through this year.

If CRP doesn’t fill some of its “cap space,” federal budgeters might see the program as a place to cut, due to unused, authorized funding.

What will make the upcoming signup a success? Kline said the focus must be on places where land is being converted to ag use, specifically in the Dakotas and western Minnesota.

“Prairie acres have got to be a priority during this signup,” he said, adding that wetlands in the prairie pothole region now are at risk of conversion due to drought in some cases, and drain tiling in others.

Nomsen said he expects there will be landowner interest – either re-enrollment or new enrollment – during the next round of signups.

“Anecdotally, we’ve been hearing a lot of requests for continuous (CRP) practices, so we do know there’s plenty of demand out there,” he said, adding that interested landowners have lots of options they might discuss with PF Farm Bill biologists, or state or county officials who administer the program.

The signup period probably will be for four weeks, according to Nomsen.

Prairie Protection

Late last week, members of Congress, including Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz, introduced a bill that they hope will discourage landowners from farming marginal lands currently not in ag production.

The Protect Our Prairies Act was introduced by Walz, a Democrat, and Kristi Noem, a South Dakota Republican.

According to a press release from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the bill “will preserve grasslands by prohibiting federal commodity payments on newly broken native sod, and by reducing federal subsidies for crop and revenue insurance by 50 percentage points on those acres.”

Kline said this “sodsaver” provision is the same as that included in last year’s Senate Farm Bill. A House committee-passed Farm Bill failed to be presented for a floor vote.

“We think that this is a no-brainer,” Kline said, adding it’s being touted as a money-saver, as well.

Ducks Unlimited says the Congressional Budget Office has estimated the provision will save about $200 million over 10 years.

DU CEO Dale Hall said the legislation “makes crop insurance payouts proportional to the productivity of the land.”

According to DU, more than 70 percent of the nation’s native grasslands, important for nesting waterfowl, have been lost, primarily to ag production. “The rate of loss has been accelerated by unintended consequences of current agriculture policy and advanced technology,” according to a DU press release.

Kline believes the Protect Our Prairies bill likely would be attached to a House Farm Bill, should it eventually consider one.

Kline also believes the provision is one that farm groups would find acceptable, and that it wouldn’t be a stumbling block when future Farm Bill discussions occur, prior to the current extension’s expiration at the end of September.

The bill is good for wildlife, conservation groups say, but it’s also good for the land.

What’s ahead

The more immediate conservation concern should be expected further cuts to programs, Kline said. The March budget cuts – sequestering – could mean across-the-board trimming of conservation programs that already have absorbed, in some cases, disproportionate reductions in funding.

“Most conservation programs are at a valley, not a peak,” Kline said, pointing out that a hunter access program (Minnesotans know it as the Walk-In Access program) no longer is federally funded.

The refuge system could see further cuts, as could projects that rely on North American Wetlands Conservation Act funds, he said.

Kline likes to point out that the Senate’s Farm Bill, passed by that body last year, was a saver of billions of dollars. And, he said, “The bill is ready to go right now.”

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