USDA to open CRP enrollment this spring

News
Mar 5, 2010

USDA will conduct a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) general enrollment sign-up this spring for the first time since 2006, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced recently.

Speaking to a crowd of hunters and conservationists at the Pheasants Fest show, Vilsack drew cheers from the crowd when announcing the enrollment.

The Farm Service Agency (FSA) is working to complete an environmental impact statement to start the CRP enrollment that could take place in late spring or early summer, he said. The enrollment would replace as many as 4.4 million acres in contracts expected to expire in September 2010, one of the largest potential drops in acreage in the program’s history.

“In addition to replacing acres that come out of CRP, we also want to improve the quality of the acres that come out of the program,” Vilsack said. “We want to do more, more for water, more for wildlife and more for climate, and we want to do a better job on the same amount of acres.”

That means the program has to target the most worthwhile CRP acres, Vilsack said. USDA would concentrate on acreage that would reduce farm runoff into rivers such as the Missouri and Mississippi River basins to improve water quality. Vilsack said it’s important the program “give the American taxpayers more bang for the buck while addressing some of the most important conservation challenges facing us.”

Come September, the biggest contract expirations would be in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas. The general sign-up would ideally replace those acres and also push overall acreage back to the 32-million-acre level.

The 2008 farm bill lowered CRP acreage from 36.7 million to a cap of 32 million acres. Right now, the program covers about 31.4 million acres. Acreage has declined partially because of the lower cap, but also because higher commodity prices over the past three years have pushed up farm rental rates and made CRP payment rates less competitive. Right now, there are no plans to dramatically increase CRP rates.

“This is a challenge for us, obviously, but we think that the crop prices are moderating a little bit which may make it a little easier than in the past,” Vilsack said. “I think we need to focus on the nonproductive, or not-as-productive land, and to explain that in the long run, this could be a good decision.”

As House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, begins hearings on a 2012 farm bill, Vilsack said this enrollment is a chance to put a spotlight on conservation programs “so they don’t get lost in a lot of other discussions that could take place.”

There are added incentives for farmers willing to allow access to their land to hunt and fish as part of a $50 million fund available as well, Vilsack said, that could make CRP payment rates more competitive. Still, Vilsack added, “We’re going to struggle mightily to get as close to 32 million (acres) as we possibly can,” he said. “I can’t guarantee we can get there. A lot of it is projections. We’ll see what this sign-up brings and what the reaction is to better targeting.”

A buffer-strip initiative would be critical, taking lands around streams and rivers to improve water quality. Vilsack worked on a similar project with Pheasants Forever as governor of Iowa, enrolling farmers in buffer-strip acreage set-asides that reduced farm runoff and also improved hunting grounds in parts of the state.

Later this year, USDA will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the CRP, which was created in the 1985 farm bill. Plugging the administration focus on climate change, Vilsack also noted the CRP is the nation’s largest privatelands carbon sequestration project, capturing the emissions equivalent of about 10 million cars.

Vilsack said he is worried about the large number of acres that have come out of CRP. The program has helped reduce soil erosion by 44 percent since the program’s creation, but still, 1.7 billion tons of soil are lost to wind and water erosion annually.

Pheasant populations have declined dramatically since some states saw a peak in hunting harvests in 2006, partially due to the loss of CRP acreage in prairie states. Bad spring weather in states such as Iowa also decimated pheasant populations.

Vilsack also signed a memorandum of the continuous sign-up program of CRP by reallocating 300,000 CRP acres to three different wildlife initiatives. One shift adds 50,000 acres to a duck habitat restoration initiative. Another adds 100,000 acres to the upland bird initiative, also known as “quail buffers.” Further, some states have aggressively enrolled acres into USDA’s State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement, or SAFE, so USDA will add another 150,000 acres to those states that have maxed out their allotted acres.

The Memorandum Of Understanding with Pheasants Forever establishes a closer relationship between the hunting group and agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and FSA, allowing Pheasants Forever to better work with landowners and farmers to implement farm bill conservation practices.

Noting that hunting is a $67 billion industry, Vilsack said a 4 percent increase in CRP acreage in a given area has shown to increase pheasant populations 22 percent and duck populations by 46 percent. — Chris Clayton, DTN

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