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Farmers and producers around the nation are competing for more than $1 billion in cash payments for land enrolled in the conservation reserve program. The program, created in 1985, protects fragile farmland by paying selected farmers to stop growing crops on highly erodible land. The program is particularly tempting to some farmers during the current farm crisis.
AROUND THE NATION, THOUSANDS OF FARMERS are sitting through meetings such as this one in Barnesville. They are learning the rules the federal government has set down for the Conservation Reserve Program's (CRP) 18th sign-up. Under the CRP, farmers retire environmentally sensitive land for 10 to 15 years; in return, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays rent and helps with the cost of establishing grassland or shrubs for wildlife on that land.
USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Dallas Smith says the program helps reduce soil erosion and expands and restores wildlife habitat while helping strengthen farm income.
Smith: The Secretary has pledged that he will use his full authority to encourage farmers to use the CRP to sustain agriculture and help farmers stay in agriculture production.Smith says the program pays competitive rental rates. Applicants fill out an evaluation to determine the environmental sensitivity of their land. Not every bid will be accepted. Only 25 percent of a county's land can be enrolled in the program. Nationwide, 398,000 contracts are available.
Smith: Our intent here is not to make the CRP more appealing then renting the land to someone to grow a crop on. But if the acreage is environmentally sensitive, we want to take it out of production and plant it to some type of soil preserve and crop or cover, if you will, so we will have land for food for future generations.Seventh District DFL Congressman Collin Peterson recently asked the USDA to expand the CRP to cover nine northwest Minnesota counties, which were previously locked out of the program. The USDA granted the request.
Peterson also introduced legislation to include cropland in northwestern Minnesota that has had repeated infestations of scab and vomitoxin, but it met with opposition from other state leaders and farmers in Minnesota.
Peterson: There were people in my district, primarily young farmers, that were not in favor of this because they thought it would drive up land prices and make it harder for them to get a hold of additional land or get started in farming.Peterson says the CRP is aimed at conservation. It's designed to be of interest to older farmers who may want to retire.
Peterson: It was not designed to - at least not under the current structure - to deal with the crisis. It's an alternative, but most farmers want to farm - especially, you know, younger farmers. They are not interested in idling their land.But according to Marlen Schiefert with the Farm Service Agency in Clay County, farmers are increasingly interested in the CRP, especially in far northwestern Minnesota, where disease has riddled crops for several years in a row.
Schiefert: It's one of those programs where we've had the depressed economy with prices and the tough weather conditions this year. If there is some portion of the farm that is not conducive to farming, the more marginal soils, this would be a chance to not have to take the risk every year.One farmer looking at the program this year is Keith Carr. He farms alfalfa, wheat, soybeans, and corn on 15,000 acres of land near Barnesville. Carr already has about 100 acres of land enrolled in the CRP.
Carr: Some of the more marginal land that is not as good a cropland, that's when you've got low commodity prices, you can't make it work the way it is now.Carr says he is checking into his options this year and the benefits of CRP are enticing.
Carr: It's basically good for the environment and it's a sure source of income, you know there is no risk. Eliminating risk is one of the main things.But not every farmer loves the CRP. Some disagree with turning cropland into wildlife habitat.
At a recent legislative farm-crisis hearing in northwestern Minnesota, several landowners voiced frustrations about the CRP program. Wilkin County farmer Gerry Nordick says he's concerned at the acreage of good cropland enrolled by last spring's CRP sign-up. He says the average CRP payment in his county is about $60-an-acre, but with so many rules and regulations, Nordick says it's hard to get land approved for the program, and it's expensive.
Nordick: When we bid it, we bid it at $47-an-acre. Well under what the bid caps was, and then they came in and said we had to spend $116-an-acre on grass seed to get it sowed down. Well, why in the hell do we want to give up three years of payments just to pacify some Audubon Society member or somebody?But the National Resource Conservation Service's Dean Schmitt warns landowners not to bank too much into the conservation reserve.
Schmitt: With the farm crisis and things the way the are, I see people going to their better land and saying, "I would kinda like that land, too." Well, that's going to pull the score down on your really highly erodible stuff when you start putting in some good land.Minnesota has about one million acres already enrolled in the program. Farmers in the state will compete for contracts to place another nine million acres nationwide in this CRP sign up, which continues through early December.