| TSLN.com

What Matters Most: Lessons learned from starting over after a fire

It’s her wedding ring Jessie Halverson regrets about the aftermath of the fire that burned their house.

On March 6, 2021, Jessie and her husband James were fixing a well about half a mile from the house. Earlier in the day they’d gotten a call from family, asking if they were in the path of the fire that came across the scanner.

They thought the answer was no.

But when they got done fixing the well and came out of the canyon, they could see black smoke from the direction of their house.

“My husband and I raced home. We were starting to see flames coming up out of the canyon probably 300 yards west of our house. My husband got the kids, who were playing in the shop, while I went in the house, and started grabbing what I could think of.”

But when you’re in that situation, there’s not much you can think of, Jessie said.

“I’d thought of this process before. Fire is a reality.”

The Halversons’ house and shop after the fire burned through on March 6, 2021. Photo courtesy Jessie Halverson.
HalversonFire2

But in that moment, she grabbed the computers and hard drives, knowing she couldn’t replace the family photos. She grabbed her purse. After James got the kids–ages 13, 11 and 8 at the time–in the vehicle, he came in and grabbed guns and guitars.

“The wind was blowing so hard, it was hard to know how the fire was going to respond.”

James and Jessie were opening gates for livestock, and could see the smoke from their place. It wasn’t a surprise when Jessie got a call from a good friend, whose husband was a volunteer firefighter, telling Jessie, through tears, that their house was gone.

“My response was ‘it’s okay, it’s just stuff.’ I was so grateful to have my family, and nothing else mattered at that point in time.”

And she still feels that way. But she’s learned that some stuff does matter. Like her wedding ring, and her grandmother’s candy dish, the gun her dad built for her and the wrenches that wore calluses on her grandfather’s hands.

It’s been over a year since the Halversons learned they’d never walk through the door of their house again, but in many ways, they’re still sifting through the rubble.

Finding things of value

When the Fish Fire started last week, about 8 miles from their house, it all came billowing back.

The anxiety, the need to be better prepared, the fear that their family would have to go through–for a second time–something they never thought they’d go through once.

But the fire was contained, and the Halversons took the opportunity to sift through what they’ve learned. Jessie said she’s trying to figure out a snarl in their renters’ insurance. They owned the home that burned, and after a year, they had the insurance straightened out, but they aren’t ready to rebuild. So they’re renting from a neighbor, and just found out there’s an insurance map that won’t allow their company to offer renters’ insurance within a certain distance of a forest–like the Black Hills.

Jessie has a box of all the things that are irreplaceable–a much smaller box than it would have been before March 6, 2021–in the camper, ready to pull out of the yard in minutes.

Having been through the process, she knows to make lists of everything of value or importance, and to make sure the insurance company knows of everything on that list. Halversons learned the hard way that the insurance company has categories of items for replacement, like guns and jewelry. Each of those categories has a cap, if they aren’t itemized. She thinks they got $2,500 for all the guns that were lost, and similar for the jewelry.

Jessie recommends making another list, of the things that are most important, that you can grab in a minute, and taping it to the inside of a cupboard door, or a drawer, and making sure the whole family knows where it is.

Others who have been through fires have noted that not all “fireproof” safes, or gun safes are fireproof. Fires–especially housefires–can get hotter than many commercially-available safes can stand, so it’s best to take those items, or the whole safe, with you when you can.

The Halversons’ shop was still standing, but the contents were a total loss. Photo courtesy of Jessie Halverson.
HalversonFire3

Jessie stresses the importance of having an insurance agent you can ask questions of, and who will work for you and with you to keep your coverage current and adequate. Many people don’t adjust their coverage as they add value to their home or personal property, and the insurance agents don’t know to make those adjustments. Once a year, maybe when you’re changing smoke detector batteries, it’s a good idea to check on your list of personal property and update it, and submit it to your insurance agent. Most additions will cost a few dollars, if anything, but can make a difference when you’re trying to rebuild your life.

Jessie also stresses the importance of taking pictures of everything in your house and shop, including opening closets, cabinet doors and drawers.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” to try to make that list after a fire. It would be more manageable before a fire, but you always think it won’t happen to you, Jessie said.

Jessie has been keeping a spreadsheet as they get life back to normal, and she said it’s a struggle to even keep a year’s worth of possessions updated.

She also kept a notebook of all her “official” conversations in the months after the fire. “It’s such a brain buster,” Jessie said of all the paperwork and phone calls and meetings. She still has the notebook with dates and details. “It’s hard to remember everything.”

It’s easy to get caught up in regrets, but Jessie tries not to linger there. The one major regret she has is not waiting longer to remove the rubble of the house. It stood for more than a month after the fire, and they went through it to salvage what they could. Her two oldest boys wanted to go through it to see if they could find any “treasures”–belt buckles, toy tractors. There weren’t many. Her daughter, who was 8 at the time, didn’t want to go back. James and Jessie let the kids decide for themselves.

The one treasure Jessie wanted most to find was her wedding ring. They found James’s. Jessie’s was in a shot glass. She doesn’t know if the glass melted around it, or if the glass would have broken, or where the ring may have ended up in the chaos of a house fire. She wishes she would have asked someone if it would have melted completely, if it was worth looking harder for.

But at the end of the day, “It’s just stuff.” Her family is okay, and life carried on, with the kids in school, James at work and Jessie dedicating months to the details and paperwork of setting them up to rebuild.

But it still makes her sad that her grandmother’s glass candy dish, the one that was always filled with lemon drops, won’t be part of that new home. The gun her dad built for her won’t be passed down to another generation. The wrenches from her grandfather may have been buried in ash, but now they’re in a landfill.

“You have to remind yourself it was just stuff, but it’s okay to feel that loss. You have to go through that process,” Jessie said.  

How to help

Having good friends, the kind who come get your cows and feed them the day your place burns, or who take your kids to somewhere they feel safe, with people who love them, so you can take care of the immediate issues, or who bring you suppers for weeks, helps ease that loss.

“Those friends who jumped in without asking, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was hard to accept at the time–both James and I struggle with asking for, or accepting help–but I’m grateful for it now. But those friends who just come in and take control relieve so much burden.”

The other thing Jessie encourages when you’re not the one dealing with a loss, and you’re trying to be helpful, is to put yourself in that person’s situation. Regardless of the loss, they’re dealing with logistics, and lots of concerned friends and family, and their own grief. While everyone’s intentions are good, asking repeatedly what you can do to help, or making repeated attempts at contacting them, is sometimes more of a burden.

But at the same time, Jessie said one friend just checked in every day, and gave her a disinterested third party to vent to, so it all depends on relationships and reading the situation with empathy.

Halversons’ friends and family created a GoFundMe account, and hosted a benefit in Sundance. People James knew through his job at the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association donated a steer for a rollover auction. “We appreciated all of that so much. It was a tremendous help to get back on our feet,” Jessie said.

It wasn’t easy, but the experience drew them closer to each other as a family, and they learned to rely even more heavily on God. “I don’t know what we would have done without our faith,” Jessie said. “I often wonder how anyone gets through life without God.”

And last year, on her birthday, a little over a year after their fire, James gave Jessie a new wedding ring.

Some circles do go unbroken.

Are you sure? Protecting your operation with the right insurance

The challenges severe weather brings to America’s farmers and ranchers on any given day can define their ability to keep their business in operation for generations to come. The question becomes, how much risk is an owner is willing to take on?

With a battling drought covering a majority of the western and midwest states, the heat of summer drones on and producers should educate themselves on what their current insurance policies offer in the form of protection and just as importantly, what isn’t protected.

A third generation rancher, Josh Geigle, owner of Bell Bar Ranch, located near Wall, South Dakota witnessed the historic, devastating blizzard of 2013 and is now living through the worsening drought conditions, leaving crop fields and grazing pastures sparse.

As Geigle transitions into being the third generation to manage his family’s cow calf and farming operation, he has learned how to walk the fine line of investing in quality insurance coverage and uncontrollable risk.

“There is a misconception with insurance – a person buys insurance for the bad weather events, and in the back of your mind, you think it will make your bottom line whole, but you know it won’t,” Geigle mentions. “By purchasing a good insurance policy, it’s going to cover the expenses, so you can stay in business and try again next year.”

Geigle works closely with the Crew Agency, LTD, located in Philip, South Dakota specializing in Agri-Risk Management, providing crop and livestock insurance coverage to ranchers and farmers in the state.

Taylor Mohnen, owner and agent of Crew Agency, LTD understands how much of a factor severe weather can affect a producer’s bottomline. “Step one – to any insurance policy is to incorporate the proper policy as a foundational part of your business plan,” Mohnen outlines.

Mohnen encourages producers to be proactive with their insurance agent to ask the needed questions, and learn all of the options. “Understanding what it costs and knowing what is feasible, will be the best way to educate yourself on all policies,” Mohnen says.

The power of three – a producer, insurance agent, and a banker will continue to keep America’s family-owned farms in business.

“A producer also needs a good banker to know where the break-even point is along with the uncontrollable weather factors and market voility,” Mohnen says.

Livestock Risk Protection

A popular policy coverage Mohnen and his team have worked with many local ranchers on this year is the Livestock Risk Protection (LRP) insurance policy. This policy is designed to help ranchers lock in a floor price, protection of a decline in prices, on purchased feeder cattle.

LRP Facts:

●Coverage prices range from 70-99.9% of daily livestock prices figured from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME).

●The Government subsidizes premiums 35-55% depending on coverage level.

●Producer must own the cattle.

●Producer chooses an insurance period of 13, 17, 21, 26, 30, 34, 39, 43, 47 or 52 weeks out. All periods are not available all the time.

●If a producer sells insured cattle more than 60 days prior to the end date of the contract, the contract becomes null and void and premium is not refunded.

●Actual loss will be the ending value figured on CMF Feeder cattle cash settled index for that particular end date.

Because of the market voility in feeder cattle, Geigle himself has invested in the LRP policy to serve as a blanket of risk protection for his cow-calf operation.

“We have about 180 cows, and I usually buy it [LRP] on a 100 head of calves just to be cautious,” Geigle explains. “So, if it costs you $35 a head, that’s $3500 you have to pay for. If the market falls and you get your premium back, maybe plus some, but for a family of five, $3500 can cover a lot in living expenses.”

Geigle understands the risks on both sides and relies heavily on the information sourced from his insurance agent to make the smart investment.

“That is the struggle, is knowing which policy you should invest in,” Geigle says.

Pasture Fire Coverage

The Pasturage Fire program provides coverage to perennial pasture, and rangeland against defined fire losses. Coverage of a pasture ground is figured by dollars per the actual value of an acre.

Coverage and loss example:

200 acres of pasturage valued at $10.00 per acre

200 x $10.00 = $2,000

$2,000 x $1.50 rate = $30.00 premium

Fire destroys 175 aces of pasturage

175 acres $10.00 per acre = $1,750 loss

$1,750 – $100 deductible = $1,650 loss payment

Policies and rates may vary by region, with higher rates in fire-prone states. There is a $100 deductible, ranchers can choose their level of coverage. This insurance is not a federally subsidized product, it is considered a private product.

There is also a pasture and grain fire policy, which covers any type of fire, no matter how it is started. However, this would not cover any outside buildings, such as barns or corrals. Typically, outside structures would be covered in one’s property and casualty insurance policy.

Having Faith and Trust

“Even though everyone [farmers and ranchers] have the same mission, we all have different resources,” Geigle points out. “Each person has to decide how much risk they are willing to take on or do they balance that risk by purchasing an insurance policy.”

The best strategy for producers to take is to be proactive and stay in contact with your local agent to learn what policy is the best fit for your operation and what is covered within it.

“We want to help young farmers and ranchers get into the agricultural industry and stay in for generations to come,” Mohnen says. “But to do that, every situation is different.”

By working with the right key players, doing the research, and having an ounce of faith, America’s farmers and ranchers will make it through these harsh weather conditions.

“Sometimes, you just have to have a good faith in the good Lord above, that he’ll provide for you,” Geigle remarks.

To research more information on LPR, visit, www.rma.usda.gov and learn more about the Pasture Fire program, visit your local insurance agent.

________________________________________

Publication: TSLN paper

Assignment: Farm/Ranch insurance – what is covered, what is not, and how can ranchers remember everything that they need to list on their policies?

Deadline: June 29 if possible

Print Date: July 3

Sources: An insurance agent- let me know if you need help finding one

Words: 800-1,000

Photos: Probably not necessary

Summary/Angle: With the hot, dry summer upon us, fires are inevitable.

It would be good to remind our readers that they may want to check their farm insurance policy to see what is covered, particularly for fire but also flood, hail, wind and other summertime disasters.

How about livestock (is it even possible to insure livestock against fire or hail or flood?) How can they remember to get “everything” on the list?

Insurance ?

Josh Giggle, (605) 441- 4602 – jngeigle@hotmail.com

Bell Bar Ranch

-Crew agency – cactus flat, 605-433-5411 (main office)

-Policies I do have is the livestock risk protection – LRP – by contract on calves – sets the price floor, $25 – gives you market protection, sends out offers on calves based on weight calves,

-180 cows, usually buy on a 100 head of calves to be cautious, if the market falls, you get your premium, for a family 5, 3500 goes a longs ways,

-Good faith

-Everyone has different resources, and how much risk they are willing to take on themselves or do they balance that risk by buying an insurance policy.

Quotes from Josh:

Josh Geigle, third generation rancher – Bell Bar Ranch, (Wall SD)

My great grandfather homesteaded the place back in 1907, a ranch that has been handed down from generation to generation, currently a cow calf enterprise operation, corn, winter wheat, forage crops to help get through the drought.

Our county is in D2, doesn’t represent how dry it actually is,

Experienced the blizzard of fall, 2013,

Farm insurance – did benefit from?

Transition and take over, from my dad’s experience in the past, he’s always carried hail insurance on his grain crops and there’s been year’s in the past we’ve had 85% damage on our wheat crop. He got a check, did it make him whole? No, but it did allow him to play again next year –

Some of the policies I do have knowledge on is the livestock risk protection – LRP

That is where you can buy a contract on your calves, it’s a policy that sets a floor on calves, it usually costs somewhere between $25-40 dollars per calf, pending on what level of protection you purchase. It basically gives you market protection, send out offers on different size of offers on weight classes and what they are willing to lock a price in on for – closing date,

For me, we have about 180 cows, I usually buy it on a 100 head of calves just to be cautious, if it costs you $35 a head, that’s $3500 you have to pay for. If the market falls, you get your premium back, maybe plus some, but for a family of five, $3500 goes a long way in living expenses, that’s the struggle is knowing which policy you should buy and which you shouldn’t.

Sometimes you just have to have a good faith in the good lord above that he’ll provide for you.

Every farmer and rancher, even though they do things similar, their resources are different. Everyone had a different financial situation where they’re at in their life, each person has to decide how much risk they are willing to take on or do they balance that risk by buying an insurance policy. It’s different for everyone.

Taylor Mohnen

Crew Agency LTD – Agri-Risk Management

Step 1 proper policies – part of your business plan (7:18)

Haystacks –

Stay in contact with their agents, what’s covered and what isn’t

Be pro-active, don’t be afraid to call an agent and ask questions and what they offer

See what it costs and what it’s feasible to – be on the project active said

Education yourself as much as you can – we want to help these guys and young people to get in and stay in long term for generations like local ranchers – to do that, every situation is different. You have a good banker to know the break even point and break even, weather, market voility, education yourself on what is available and see what’s offered – benefits to a

Beginning farmer/rancher in the farm bill

Premium discounts – available through a crop agent –

Livestock risk protection on calves – 13:00 get a bottom locked in and comfort of mind

Drought and risk – pasture fire and LRP

Find out what is covered on their policy?

Haystack covered? Hay – way expensive this year

Get educated* four agents here full time, to call and visit no cost,

 

Prevention is key to stopping wildfires this summer

The Montana Farm Bureau is urging all Montanans and those visiting the Treasure State to do their part to prevent wildfires during this extremely dry summer. Most areas are in the midst of a serious drought with the Fire Danger signs reading “Very High.”

It’s essential that everybody follows the following recommendations:

Never park hot machinery on or near dry grass; that includes cars, ATVs, campers and more.

Ensure trailer/implement chains do not drag when hauling.

Post signs and enforce “no smoking” in barns, near machinery, near fuel tanks, and near other flammable materials.

Cut vegetation between buildings and maintain a cleared area of at least 30 feet.

Always comply with state and local regulations regarding open burning; exercise good judgement.

Ensure fire extinguishers are charged and other equipment (rakes, shovels, water hoses, discs, plows, etc.) are readily available. Make sure every piece of farm equipment (i.e. tractors, swathers, combines) have a working fire extinguisher on board.

Do not store firewood next to buildings, especially log homes.

“We’re looking at a very hot, dry summer so everyone needs to do their part of make sure our forests and communities don’t go up in flames,” noted Austin Grazier, director, Montana Ag Safety Program. “It’s key to make sure your fire suppression tools, such as firefighting rigs and fire extinguishers, are in good working order and ready to go. Make sure to get your fire extinguisher recharged annually. You will have to look up a certified fire equipment dealer in your area to recharge your extinguisher. This usually costs between $15-$25, but well worth the cost.”

When using a fire extinguisher remember P.A.S.S. :

P – PULL the pin;

A – AIM the nozzle at the base of the fire;

S – SQUEEZE the handle;

S – SWEEP the nozzle side to side across the base of the fire.

“Being aware of potential fire hazards is half the battle in ensuring your home, your community and the state stay as fire-free as possible,” noted Grazier, “Ensuring that your employees on the farm and ranch are properly trained how to suppress a fire will help reduce costly accidents, injuries, and help Montana’s agriculture industry stay safe.”

–Montana Farm Bureau

Blame it on the wind: Montana ranchers and farmers deal with storm aftermath

Cori Schultz remembered hearing the roaring wind around her Bloomfield, Montana farmhouse the evening of June 10. What she didn’t hear was the 92-year-old barn collapsing.

“The storm started around 9 p.m. and by 10 the barn was on the ground,” Schultz remembers. “People asked if I heard the barn go down. I didn’t, but I did see a tree that was sideways and everything was swirling.”

Cori and her husband, who passed away from cancer in January, raised their children on her husband’s family’s farm near Bloomfield. The Schultz family had brought the old red barn from the Rickerts farm to their farm in 1967 and had given in it a new lease on life by installing a new roof and new windows and blessing the venerable structure with a new coat of red paint. Schultz’ granddaughter was married in front of the barn on June 11, 2016. Five years later, the barn was gone.

The aftermath at the Schultz farm near Bloomfield, found the large television tower landing between the propane tank and the garage and twelve old trees or more completely uprooted.

“Telephone poles and wires were all down, I know of four buildings down the road that were blown apart and there were some collapsed grain bins,” Schultz noted. “Depending where you lived, some of the power poles were snapped and some were just laid over. We lost power that night and it will be next Wednesday or Thursday until we have it back.”

Schultz’ neighbors, Cindi and Dan Unruh, were worried about Cori when they heard the storm raging through and knew the power was out.

“Cori had just lost her husband and were panicking to make sure she was all right,” said Cindy Unruh. “The phones weren’t working and we couldn’t get there with a pick-up, so we got our four-wheeler. There were so many power poles all over the road, and my husband wanted to pull them out of the way. We ran into a young neighbor who was able to help with that. We wanted it cleared so Cori could get out.”

The Unruh’s son, Zachary, owns “Make Like A Tree” tree service in Billings. When he heard about the devastation from the storm, he hurried over to Bloomfield with his equipment.

“He was sorry he couldn’t stay longer, but he was able to help Cori and a few other neighbors,” said Unruh. “The guys that came over from different REA co-ops worked long, hard days. They did an amazing job getting our electricity back within a week.”

Unruh said the community was fortunate that even with blown apart buildings and downed trees and power poles, nobody was injured, and everyone pulled together. “It’s an amazing neighborhood. People look out for each other.”

Schultz’ daughter, Angela, added, “The next morning after the storm, we were trying to get to Mom’s house. Every road leading to the house had power poles across the road. We even were trying to drive on the section lines, but with all the rain, they proved to be too muddy. We finally just drove in the ditch around them and made it safely into her driveway. We talked to one of the linemen who was working very hard and, he told us that the poles were not just snapped off, but some of them were twisted and thrown off.”

The destruction was part of two storms that whipped through eastern Montana and western North Dakota the evening of June 8 and June 10. The storms brought wind, hail and in some areas, excessive rain. As is usually the case with June storms, some places received no rain at all, while reports were made of seven inches in some areas. Across the border, the town of Williston, N.D. experienced flash flooding. Thousands of downed trees and power poles were left in the wake of the storms.

“When it comes down that hard, it just runs off, and doesn’t really much good other than refilling some stock reservoirs,” said Sidney sugar beet farmer Don Steinbeisser, Jr. Steinbeisser, who serves as Montana Farm Bureau District 6 Director, had been attending the organization’s summer conference in Great Falls when the storm hit back home. He saw the devastation first hand driving back on Highway 2, which runs along the Hi-Line of Montana.

“The grass looked like someone had cut it down and piled it up, and there were a lot of telephone poles snapped, fences down and so many old trees tipped over. I saw lots of beat-up beet leaves, as well as grain plastered into the mud,” the farmer said. “I have a pivot right outside of my kitchen window that was tipped over. I saw three tornadoes across the river, and I’m not sure if they touched down or not. In town, there were roof shingles everywhere.”

Steinbeisser noted even with three or four inches of rain, because it came down so fast, it didn’t have a chance to soak in, so the area is still experiencing dry conditions.

Lee Candee, Agra Industries in Sidney, confirmed that his company, which handles Valley ® irrigation products, had 50 Valley pivots blown over, and heard that 10 more Reinke center pivots were also toppled in the storm. He said although much of the damage in the area was structural, crops could suffer because it will take time to get the pivots up and running again.

“We’re getting six loads of parts in between Friday and Monday, and we’d like to get all of those pivots operating again in a week, but that might not happen which will, of course, affect the crops,” he said.

Although stock reservoirs may have been replenished by the rain, with so many power poles down, ranchers with electric stock tanks are needing to use generators to keep their livestock watered. Other than concerns about livestock water, livestock and other critters seem to have weathered the two storms fairly well.

As for Cori Schultz’ chickens, they were rattled, but not harmed. “They quit laying for a day or two, but were otherwise fine,” she reported.


The Schultz’ barn, built in 1929, lies in a heap following the storm. Photos by Angela Schultz

USDA to raise CRP payment rates to get more acres

 

Troubled by farmers’ and landowners’ lack of enthusiasm for enrolling land in the Conservation Reserve Program, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that USDA will open enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) with higher payment rates, new incentives, and a more targeted focus on the program’s role in climate change mitigation.

Vilsack announced the changes at a meeting of the National Climate Task Force, and the White House in turn highlighted the announcement in a readout of the task force meeting. (For a broader look at the task force meeting, see top story.)

Vilsack also announced investments in partnerships to increase climate-smart agriculture, including $330 million in 85 Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) projects and $25 million for On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials.

“Sometimes the best solutions are right in front of you. With CRP, the United States has one of the world’s most successful voluntary conservation programs. We need to invest in CRP and let it do what it does best — preserve topsoil, sequester carbon, and reduce the impacts of climate change,” said Vilsack. “We also recognize that we can’t do it alone. At the White House Climate Leaders Summit this week, we will engage leaders from all around the world to partner with us on addressing climate change. Here at home, we’re working in partnership with producers and local organizations through USDA programs to bring new voices and communities to the table to help combat climate change.”

Conservation Reserve Program

USDA’s goal is to enroll up to 4 million new acres in CRP by raising rental payment rates and expanding the number of incentivized environmental practices allowed under the program.

CRP has a long track record of preserving topsoil, sequestering carbon, and reducing nitrogen runoff, as well as providing healthy habitat for wildlife, but today USDA emphasized that CRP “is a powerful tool when it comes to climate mitigation, and acres currently enrolled in the program mitigate more than 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). If USDA reaches its goal of enrolling an additional 4 million acres into the program, it will mitigate an additional 3 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent and prevent 90 million pounds of nitrogen and 33 million tons of sediment from running into our waterways each year.”

To target the program on climate change mitigation, the Farm Service Agency, which manages the CRP, is introducing a new Climate-Smart Practice Incentive for CRP general and continuous signups that aims to increase carbon sequestration and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Climate-Smart CRP practices include establishment of trees and permanent grasses, development of wildlife habitat, and wetland restoration. The Climate-Smart Practice Incentive is annual, and the amount is based on the benefits of each practice type.

In 2021, CRP is capped at 25 million acres, and currently 20.8 million acres are enrolled. Furthermore, the cap will gradually increase to 27 million acres by 2023.

To help increase producer interest and enrollment, FSA is:

▪ Adjusting soil rental rates. This enables additional flexibility for rate adjustments, including a possible increase in rates where appropriate.

▪ Increasing payments for practice incentives from 20% to 50%. This incentive for continuous CRP practices is based on the cost of establishment and is in addition to cost share payments.

▪ Increasing payments for water quality practices. Rates are increasing from 10% to 20% for certain water quality benefiting practices available through the CRP continuous signup, such as grassed waterways, riparian buffers, and filter strips.

▪ Establishing a CRP Grassland minimum rental rate. This benefits more than 1,300 counties with rates currently below the minimum.

Enhanced natural resource benefits

To boost impacts for natural resources, FSA is:

▪ Moving State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) practices to the CRP continuous signup. Unlike the general signup, producers can sign up year-round for the continuous signup and be eligible for additional incentives.

▪ Establishing National Grassland Priority Zones. This aims to increase enrollment of grasslands in migratory corridors and environmentally sensitive areas.

▪ Making Highly Erodible Land Initiative (HELI) practices available in both the general and continuous signups.

Expanding prairie pothole soil health and watershed programs

CRP has two pilot programs ― the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP) and the Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers 30-year contracts (CLEAR30).

For SHIPP, which is a short-term option (3-, 4-, or 5-year contracts) for farmers to plant cover on less productive agricultural lands, FSA will hold a 2021 signup in the Prairie Pothole states. The CLEAR30 pilot, a long-term option through CRP, will be expanded from the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay pilot regions to nationwide.

USDA technical assistance through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is critical to enable producers to plan and implement conservation practices that are appropriate for their needs. To ensure increased enrollment and support for producers, USDA is increasing NRCS technical assistance capacity for CRP by $140 million.

Additionally, in order to better target the program toward climate outcomes, USDA will invest $10 million in the CRP Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation (MAE) program to measure and monitor the soil carbon and climate resilience impacts of conservation practices over the life of new CRP contracts. This will enable the agency to further refine the program and practices to provide producers tools for increased climate resilience.

CrowderMichael 2020 NACD

Michael Crowder

National Association of Conservation District President Michael Crowder applauded the announcement, saying that “inadequate compensation for landowners has led to low enrollment in the program in the past year. These increased rental rates and incentives are critical to ensuring farmers are appropriately compensated for participating in CRP. With these incentives in place, we hope to see full enrollment in the program.”

 

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Policy Director Eric Deeble said, “The Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP), including its Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative, represent the most cost-effective and beneficial enrollments in the program. The reversal of the previous administration’s reduction in the CCRP Practice Incentive Payments and rental rate bonus, together with the new climate-smart practice incentive, will put the CCRP and CLEAR back on track, sending a clear signal to farmers that enrollments of high-payoff practices like riparian buffers, prairie strips, and grass waterways will be worth their while. This is very welcome news for Earth Day, and NSAC applauds Secretary Vilsack for moving quickly to reverse the tide.”

 

Chesapeake Bay Foundation Director of Science and Agricultural Policy Beth McGee said, “The Chesapeake Bay Foundation welcomes Secretary Vilsack’s efforts to improve the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and applauds USDA for sending a clear signal that it is a priority for the Biden administration. Enrolling land in CRP not only helps improve and protect water quality, it can also help farmers contribute to greenhouse gas reductions and make their land more resilient to the more frequent and intense storms, flooding, and other related weather extremes.

“A part of the CRP called the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) has helped bay region farmers finance the majority of forested buffers in the watershed. Buffers are an essential, cost-effective practice bay states are relying on to reduce nutrient runoff into the bay and its waterways. Unfortunately, CREP enrollment in the watershed has dropped dramatically in recent years.

“These investments, along with CREP improvements in the 2018 farm bill, will invigorate one of the most important USDA programs for restoring the bay,” McGee added. “We thank USDA for its leadership and urge the department to partner with the states and work expeditiously to make these critical reforms, so farmers in the bay watershed and around the country can reap financial rewards they’ve earned for the public benefits they are providing.”

 

Mike Seyfert, president and CEO of the National Grain and Feed Association, which represents country elevators, suppliers and transporters and has traditionally expressed reservations about programs that take land out of agricultural production, said, “NGFA looks forward to working with Congress and the Biden administration on promoting working lands conservation programs as climate-smart solutions that keep U.S. agriculture competitive. The NGFA believes CRP should be targeted at the most environmentally sensitive portions of farms, and avoid enrollment of whole farms or large tracts of productive farmland. Programs that drastically increase acreage idling in the United States send market signals to competitors to plant more acres, resulting in negative climate and environmental impacts. We look forward to hearing additional details from USDA and working with the department to ensure this acreage is targeted for the most substantial environmental benefits while preserving U.S. agricultural productivity and competitiveness.”

–The Hagstrom Report

Wildfires Can Impact Grasslands

 

The winter of 2020-2021 has been extremely dry, warm and windy.

As of April 12, all of North Dakota was in drought, with approximately 70% of the state in extreme drought (D3 on a scale of D0 to D4). This condition has created a “perfect storm,” with large amounts of dry vegetation, low humidity, dry soils and wind fueling a high-risk environment for wildfires.

So, what are the impacts of fire on the plant community and forage production, soil erosion and animal health?

“Let’s start with the plant community,” says Kevin Sedivec, North Dakota State University Extension rangeland management specialist and director of NDSU’s Central Grasslands Research Extension Center. “Because the wildfires to date have been classified as dormant-season fires (prior to the growing season), there should be no impact on the plant community in terms of species change on rangelands, plant density on grass hay stands or forage production of new growth.”

NDSU researchers conducted a two-year study on a pasture fire near Lemmon, S.D. This fire occurred in early April 2013. The researchers found no change in plant species composition, but they did see an increase in bare ground and reduction in litter the year of the fire, but no differences the following year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Station in Miles City, Mont., assessed the impacts of the fire on forage production. The researchers found the fire actually increased forage production more than 50% during the year of the fire. They also found grazing two months after the fire increased production the highest the following year.

Research at the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center also has shown that April fires have no negative effect on forage production, and grazing one to two months following the burn increased new growth when rotationally grazed.

“Wildfires will remove most of the standing litter, or carryover dead plants, leading to less overall standing forage,” Sedivec says. “However, much of this standing litter is low in quality and palatability.”

The standing litter does protect the soil by acting like armor. Wildfires will increase bare ground, which can lead to a higher risk of erosion. Land with slopes or rough topography will be highly susceptible to erosion or sluffing of soil downslope.

Managing Lands Impacted by a Dormant-season Fire

The most common question will be: “When can I graze my pasture after the fire?”

“This is a tougher question to answer because of many variables,” Sedivec says. “The current drought will impact plant recovery. Past grazing management also will enhance or impede plant recovery.”

If moisture in May and June is normal or above normal, grazing can be conducted at the normal time period, especially on lands with gentle to no slopes. In badland regions or areas with exposed soils and slopes, delay grazing until sufficient growth has occurred to protect the soils. This may be two to four months, but more importantly, the soils need protection with vegetation.

If the drought continues through May and June, delay grazing a minimum of two months to put less stress on the plants while they are growing actively. Most of the grasses will head out, or mature, by early July, so grazing should be safe after that time.

Grazing on badland areas, as seen near Medora or in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, can increase erosion with an extended drought. These areas will be the slowest to recover and have the greatest risk of erosion.

A continued drought will have the greatest impact on these areas in terms of timing of recovery. Grazing may need to be delayed the longest in these areas to negate the impacts of livestock trailing on these exposed, steep slopes.

Animal Health a Concern

Animal health also can be a concern on burned areas that do not have sufficient recovery of plant growth. Ash and dust can lead to dust pneumonia in livestock, especially the young.

Do not graze freshly burned areas that have little to no new plant growth, especially if the drought persists. Rainfall will settle the dust and ash, leading to new plant growth and a safe environment for livestock.

Sedivec recommends delaying livestock grazing until early May on crested wheatgrass and late May on rangelands, regardless of whether the pasture was burned.

“The drought has created a delay in plant growth and production,” he says. “If you follow this guideline, pastures affected by wildfire should be safe to graze by late May or early June without impacting the plant community or new forage production. The drought will have a greater impact on forage production than dormant-season fires in North Dakota.”

Wildfires prior to the growing season should have no impact on the plant community in terms of species change on rangelands, plant density on grass hay stands or forage production of new growth. NDSU photo

–NDSU Agriculture Communication

Forage 2021: Microbiomes: Cities in the soil

Imagine a community. Every citizen in the community has a job. Some work in manufacturing. Some work in repair. Some haul off the garbage. Some prepare food. Some…well, we’re not sure what some of them do. They all have a function, but they all have needs that must be met. And they all have the same goal–to survive.  

Now, imagine that community being too small to see, and being in every square inch of soil, touching every plant in the world. 

That’s a plant microbiome. 

In the last 10 years, plant microbiomes have caught the attention of scientists who study agronomy, horticulture and energy.  

As the world looks toward renewable energy, there is increasing focus on improving the efficiency of plants–specifically, those that can be used for biofuels. While that big, sexy topic is attracting attention and grant dollars, that research and its findings is being applied and expanded on in studies that will benefit agriculture in general.  

Peggy Lemaux is a Cooperative Extension specialist with the University of California, Berkeley. She grew up on a small farm in Ohio, but when it was time to choose a career, she thought she’d find something easier than agriculture. So she became a microbiologist in medical research. After becoming disillusioned with medical research, she decided to apply her medical research background to plants. 

Microbiomes in the human body pioneered the research into understanding microbiomes, which are complex communities of microscopic organisms that interact with nearly every living thing. Some are beneficial, some are detrimental, but all exist solely for their own survival, Lemaux said. 

Lemaux’s research has been primarily on the effects of drought on sorghum and its microbiome, and understanding what makes sorghum more drought-tolerant. The Department of Energy funded a $12.3 million grant for the research Lemaux and her colleagues did on the subject. Sorghum is an important plant for biofuel use, and is more drought-tolerant, but also more flooding-tolerant than corn. It also has forage value, so a lot of industries have an interest in optimizing the efficiency of sorghum production, Lemaux said. 

While one would think that identifying the organisms in the microbiome would be the first step in learning their functions and requirements, Lemaux said their research primarily works backward from a genetic standpoint, by identifying individual genetic sequences and then figuring out the function, and identifying the bacteria that perform that function. “You can’t isolate each bacteria and figure out what it is,” she said. “But you can take this whole mash of genomes and put them back together. By figuring out what genomes are there you can figure out what bacteria are there.” 

A lot of research on these types of subjects is performed in a growth chamber, greenhouse or other controlled environments. Lemaux, though, wanted to know how real conditions affect the plant and its microbiome. So her research was performed in fields in California, where her team repeated the same experiments for three years in a row, taking samples of roots, leaves, soil and rhizosphere, a tiny layer between the root and the soil, every week for 17 weeks. “Every year is a little bit different. What we learned one year is fine, but if we do it for two to three years are we going to get the same answer? Not for everything. A lot of the microbe reactions and plant reactions are the same from year to year. We’re putting together three years of expression levels of genes that are in the plant roots. So we can know what kinds of things does the plant think it has to make or do? How is it protecting itself? A lot of those things, by looking at three years of data, are the same. That’s reassuring to those of us who do research.” 

During the study they discovered that the microbiome reacts faster than anyone anticipated to changes in water conditions. For example, when the plants were droughted for eight to nine weeks, the diversity of microbe types in the rhizosphere dropped from maybe 100 different bacterial species down to maybe 10, Lemaux said. Once water was added back to the plants, within 24 hours the number of species in the rhizosphere spiked back up to 100. The microbial community in the soil stays the same, drought or not; it’s just the rhizosphere community that changes dramatically. 

Lemaux pointed out that the soil they were studying isn’t “natural.” It’s been used for Extension agronomy studies for decades, so it was essentially converted to cropland. “Even so, it’s very diverse in terms of its microorganisms,” she said. “We hadn’t gotten rid of the microbes in the soil. That’s good.” 

Volker Brozel is a professor at South Dakota State University and is studying microbiomes in the context of “natural” soil compared to cultivated soil. One of SDSU’s study sites is the Sioux Prairie in eastern South Dakota, which has been owned by The Nature Conservancy since the 1960s, Brozel said. “It gives a comparison to what it looked like before people came with plows.” Brozel studies primarily the nitrogen cycle. “The prairie takes care of itself. Which, obviously, it did for many thousands of years. We do know there’s a lot of microbial activity involved in the root environment and inside the plant. When one gets to cultivated cropland there’s a whole different story, as a lot of the natural microbiota has been lost due to monoculture.”  

Brozel points out that most of the major breakthroughs in farming in the last few decades have been above-ground, plant-focused or on the physical properties of soil, as with no-till farming. “People have increasingly wondered what’s happening below ground. We don’t see it, but it’s very much part of the plant. Every plant has a root system.” 

The question they’re asking now is how to make the plant system more efficient at the underground level. “There are a lot of lifeforms and a lot going on there–fungi, protozoa, bacteria, insects,” Brozel says. “I think the important thing to realize for a producer is it’s not as simple as good guys and bad guys. Every organism in there is in the game of surviving, from their perspective. A plant wants water, phosphorus, nitrogen. A bacterium wants food. Sometimes it benefits the plant, sometimes it’s to the detriment of the plant.”  

Brozel points out, though, that the focus needs to be on the community, not on finding a “magic” bacterium that will make everything better. “There is something to that, but the soil is very diverse. It’s not that simple because you’re introducing it to a complex world. My lab asks how does that world work in its totality. Before we fix the engine, can we understand how it works and tweak it?” 

A natural grassland, Brozel says, is very capable of supplying itself with enough nitrogen through fixation. In a plant monoculture, like most farmground, some of that ability is lost. “If we can find out how that works we understand better the pieces to put back into monoculture. These nitrogen fixers can boost plants if you can boost their happiness. Fixing nitrogen takes a huge investment from the bacteria. It’s a very energy-intense reaction. Bacteria don’t do this because they feel like they want to do a good deed for the plant. They have to get something in return. Understanding how that interplay works is important for us.” 

Sen Subramanian is a professor in agronomy, horticulture and plant science at SDSU. His research focuses on how microbiomes affect nodule development in soybeans, and, in partnership with Kansas State University, how microbes affect chilling tolerance in sorghum. Sorghum would be a desirable crop on the Great Plains, as it doesn’t require as much water or fertilizer as corn, can tolerate flooding more than corn and can be used in both energy and agriculture applications. However, because it’s sensitive to early-stage chilling, meaning it needs a higher soil temperature than other crops, it often can’t use winter moisture for germination, and it sometimes freezes before it’s harvested. For fields that aren’t suitable for corn, or other cultivation, sorghum could be a valuable crop if scientists can solve that one small problem.   

The research is still relatively new, but several companies are in the early stages of offering farmers microbial options for improving growth and pest resistance. They identify a few species of bacteria that have a beneficial function and add them through seed coat or specific application. One company, called BioConsortia, is developing, or has developed, biologics to address nematodes, insects and fungus, plus nitrogen fixation and biostiumlants, which they say consistently improves the yield of various fruit and vegetable crops by 15 percent, according to their website.  

Brozel and Lemaux both pointed out that microbiomes are specific to ecoregions, so the microbes that would be beneficial to cucumbers in California wouldn’t be much help to millet in Montana. “They have to be tailored to soil structure and a range of factors, like temperature and rainfall,” Brozel said. “What would work in eastern South Dakota wouldn’t necessarily work in western South Dakota.”  

The scientists all hope their research will add another piece to the puzzle of what goes on underground that affects how plants perform and survive. “One can apply concepts to closely-related crops,” Subramanian said. “A benefit of doing this detailed analysis is you can identify what microbe, but also what quality in that microbe is performing a function. You can find another microbe that already exists in another environment that provides the same benefit.”

Like the communities in the world, microbiomes all have unique aspects, and they don’t all have the same needs or functions. Billings doesn’t need gondoliers and Venice doesn’t usually need snowplow drivers. The key, scientists are discovering, is figuring out who is doing which job, and who to hire and who to fire to get the important jobs done. 

Out Like a Lion: Wildfires blaze across South Dakota

High winds and warm, dry conditions are a combination we all dread. March 29 had it all. Winds over 50 mph started early in the morning, as did fire alarms. About noon a Jones County, South Dakota, county road man, Colin Strait noticed smoke, called it in and tried to make a fire line with his road grader until getting stuck crossing a creek. Local farmers, ranchers and volunteer fire departments responded to the call.

Mel and Clarice Roghair live northwest of Okaton, South Dakota, and a little before 1 p.m. they lost electricity but thankfully still had a corded phone. Their oldest son, Marty, called to tell them to pack up whatever was important and to be ready to leave as a bad fire was just to the north of their house. The wind was so fierce that Clarice wasn’t even able to open her west-facing door. She had to use the other door to load a few belongings and their dog in the car. “I took pictures from the east side of the house, watching flames lick up the grasses of the northeastern hills. Heavy, fast smoke ahead of a roaring wind is hard to imagine if you’ve never seen it,” Clarice said.

Mel left to drive for his son and Clarice made a few phone calls, waiting until Marty called and told her to leave immediately. “It is a very strange feeling when you think your house is going to go up in smoke. It didn’t. How does one ever thank the firemen and other friends and neighbors who risked their lives in the battle against the wind-driven fire?” Clarice said.

Marty Roghair was on his way back with a load of feed from Kadoka. He made phone calls and arrived at his parents’ home, along with his brother, before the fire got there. Marty’s cows were pastured in the line of danger but the smoke and blowing dirt made it almost impossible to move them at all. “We couldn’t see ten feet when we were trying to move the cows.”

Eventually some of the cows were pushed below a dam as the fire came by, but the yearlings had to be left in the lot as they refused to leave. The main herd was still out in the winter pasture and the fire split around the creek area they gathered in and his herd came through unscathed. The Roghairs had taken a tractor and pickup up to help Colin Strait in the road grader by building a fire break around him. With the wind accelerating the blaze they were eventually forced to abandon the road grader and head back to the house in an effort to save the buildings. One pickup, blinded by the smoke, drove off the road and the occupants were saved from the fire by a fire truck out of Midland, who happened to be behind them. The fire melted the plastic bug shield on the pickup and popped the tires but the engine still starts. With new tires it will be going again. Everyone gathered in the yard of Mel and Clarice Roghair and even though part of their shelter belt was burnt, all the buildings were saved. “I’ve never seen anything like it, it just roared. It burnt the stubble fields and immediately the dirt started blowing. There is a good five to six inches of powder dirt in the road ditches. It looks like the pictures from the 1930s,” Marty said.

Marty figures he lost 20 miles of fence on land he rents and owns and probably 1,500 acres of spring and summer pasture. He runs on ground around his parents and also several miles away near his own home, and has always hated driving back and forth but now he is thankful to have unburnt pastures to haul his herd to and some hay to feed them. “To save on hay, all my replacement heifers are going to the sale on Friday.”

The road grader survived the fire and after being pulled out, went back to making fire break. The Dry Creek fire sped south and east, burning stubble fields, pastures and hay, the fire eventually jumped I-90 in multiple places, and crossed the old highway 16. It blazed across the county for nine and a half miles and left more than 9,900 acres blackened. Over a dozen fire departments assisted the residents of Jones County to fight the fire, something they are extremely grateful for, and to the local businesses that offered food and refreshments to everyone.

Schroeder Fire, Rapid City

Two smaller fires near Keystone, South Dakota forced the closing of Mt. Rushmore and highways 16A and 244. Another fire ignited in the Schroeder road subdivision just west of the Rapid City city limits, forcing numerous evacuations and at least one home has been lost. The fire is burning in rough hills and canyons inaccessible to vehicles, so firefighters on foot and with air support slowly made headway. Rocky Mountain Incident Management Blue Team has taken over operations giving a much needed respite to local departments. As of Friday morning the fire was at 2,224 acres and 87 percent contained. About 250 personnel were working the fire and focusing on protecting structures and private property. Most roads had been reopened, but a few residents were still not allowed back into their homes.

Divide Fire, Bison

At 6:10 p.m. on March 29, a fire was reported 4 miles north of Prairie City, South Dakota, fanned by winds of 40-50 mph, the fire burned a swath 12 miles long and in places 2 miles wide and was estimated at 8,000 acres. By evening they had the fire slowed and was reported 80 percent contained, thanks to the response of crews from 24 different rural departments, but strong winds on March 30 caused it to take off again. The Divide Fire burned a total of 10,800 to 11,800 acres. There have been reports of damage to firefighting equipment, livestock injured and killed but no homes were lost or human injury reported.

The fire started about 4 miles northwest of Eric and Ida Sander’s ranch near Bison, South Dakota. Ida was out monitoring the fire and her husband was helping neighbors move their cattle to safety. “It was blowing so hard you couldn’t see the road to drive on, hard to tell where the fire was. It came within a quarter mile of our house and buildings, one of our neighbors lost their shop and it came within ten feet of their house. We didn’t lose any livestock just hay, pasture and fences,” Ida said. “We live in a very wonderful part of the world, 24 different fire departments came, people dropping their lives to come help. Fire is a scary thing, we are praying for rain. It is very dry here.”

Ty Fowler ranches south of Buffalo, South Dakota nearly 70 miles from the Divide Fire, but he could see the smoke and dust at his home. The second day he asked emergency management if help was needed and the answer was yes. Being the chief of the Redig Fire Department, Fowler headed east with a neighbor. With nights still below freezing their fire truck didn’t have any water in it and they had to fill up when they got to the fire. “They were thanking us for coming before we did anything. But if I had a fire I would want people to come help. It was neat to see all the different departments respond,” Fowler said. “When we got close I thought it was a tremendous fire line, but it was mostly dirt in the air not just smoke. I saw a group of sheep along the highway that had apparently been in the path of the fire as some were obviously suffering. Several were nearly all black from being burned over. No doubt the owners were busy fighting fire and not able to attend to them. It was the most disturbing.”

Fowler said they have been extremely dry with only a half inch total of moisture recorded since November. He likened the blowing dirt to a blizzard. “It was scary-dangerous driving on those roads, as close to zero visibility as I want to be in. There were trucks going every direction, I was scared someone might be overdriving conditions and hit us, so we got off the road and drove in a field. The winds had started to die down about the time we headed home.”

Bison, South Dakota rancher Tom Brockel has a lot of rebuilding to do. “(It’s) pretty devastating for myself and those around me. The machinery and buildings we lost here can be replaced in time. The livestock is the hardest part, animals that are burned, we are doctoring them. My shop is a total loss, all my tools, it got so hot. My cattle shed was full of trucks, my fertilizer spreader and the antique tractor from my uncle, we lost all that.”

Neighbors helped to move vehicles and save some of his things before the fire reached his place. There were fire trucks in the yard trying to save the buildings, but when they ran out of water, Brockel couldn’t even run a garden hose since they had lost electricity. “We did what we could with what we had, (the fire fighters) put their lives on the line. But everybody is safe and come the end of the day we have a lot to be thankful for.”

The house was saved, along with a few other buildings but all the corrals, most of his fences and almost all of his pastures are gone. His nephew and a neighbor managed to open gates for the cattle and so far Brockel hasn’t lost any but he had been doctoring calves with burns and he is worried about possible pneumonia from the smoke. The second day he and some neighbors were pairing up and doctoring when they saw smoke rising again. “It was on us before we could do anything. It came within 300-400 yards of the house, a neighbor with a tractor and disk and my tractor and disk we plowed enough fire guard to divert it. I still have most of my hay, I lost a few stacks and lost my silage pile, it is still smoldering.”

“What we need the worst is moisture,” Brockel said. “I think that it is so dry, that the dirt is wanting to burn, I’ve never seen it so dry. Just hope and pray we get moisture. My dad started out here and now he is gone and most of my life here, so most of two lifetimes to build this place, it’s going to take years and years to rebuild. We are at a loss, just trying to pick up the pieces. An overwhelming amount of support, everyday a yard full of men here to help and this a time of year when everyone has a lot on their plates. It’s pretty humbling and we are extremely grateful.”

The causes of all the fires are still under official investigation.

USDA Invests $28 Million in New Projects to Help Restore Lost Wetland Functions, Benefits on Agricultural Landscapes

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is investing $28 million in six new Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership (WREP) projects and four ongoing ones, which enable conservation partners and producers to work together to return critical wetland functions to agricultural landscapes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is investing $28 million in six new Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership (WREP) projects and four ongoing ones, which enable conservation partners and producers to work together to return critical wetland functions to agricultural landscapes. Partners will contribute $2.82 million, bringing the total investments to $30.82 million.

“Wetlands have tremendous benefits ranging from cleaner water, to flood prevention, to enhancing wildlife habitat to sequestering carbon,” said Terry Cosby, acting Chief for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “The Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership helps partners cover more ground with producers in expanding the footprint of healthy wetlands across our country.”

Since 2014, WREP projects across 11 states have resulted in 136 closed wetland easements and wetland easements pending closure, protecting more than 27,425 acres. In total, NRCS has supported landowners in protecting more than 2.85 million acres through wetland easement programs nationwide.

New projects include:

Tri State: The Nature Conservancy

This existing project seeks to enroll an additional 2,000 acres per state, totaling 6,000 acres, in Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE). The project focuses on restoring forested wetlands within priority portions of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, including specifically targeting priority watersheds of the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative area. The proposed project is Phase III of a continuing effort that began in 2017. Existing efforts have resulted in more than 3,800 acres of easements that have been acquired or are pending in the project area to date. NRCS will invest $8.35 million for the first year.

Iowa Skunk River: Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources

This existing project, which initially targeted 1,800 acres for habitat restoration and permanent protection, now seeks to enroll and restore 700 to 1,000 additional acres of riverine wetland and grassland habitats. Now in its second phase, the project aims to restore important monarch habitats through floodplain wetland and grassland restoration, restore off-channel and wet meadow wetlands, and provide reduced sediment and nutrient delivery to the Skunk River system. First-year activities are fully funded by partner contributions.

Bayou du Chien: The Nature Conservancy

This project seeks to enroll 2500 acres over the next three years to improve wildlife habitat through the development of large, contiguous blocks of protected land to benefit priority species. It also aims to improve water quality in both local watersheds and the greater Mississippi River basin by directly reducing excess nutrients and sediments through floodplain reconnection and restoration. NRCS will invest $3.15 million for the first year.

Lower Mississippi River Batture Phase VI: Mississippi River Trust

This existing project seeks to build on sustainability efforts and water management in the active floodplain of the Lower Mississippi River, or the Batture, thus providing significant ecological, economic and societal benefits. Partners propose to facilitate the enrollment of an additional 9,000 acres of privately owned, predominately cleared, flood prone land in wetland easements along the Batture area. The project also helps agricultural producers by removing frequently flooded land from production and eliminating the expenses and subsidies associated with farming that land. The proposed project is phase six of a continuing effort that began in 2012. Current efforts under phases one through five have resulted in acquired easements or easements pending for more than 22,000 acres of land in the project area. First-year activities are fully funded by partner contributions.

Texas Mid-Coast Initiative: Ducks Unlimited, Inc

This project seeks to enroll nearly 700 acres of wetlands to conserve priority wetland habitats for migratory birds and other state and federally listed species through restoration and enhancement efforts. The project also aims to improve habitat conditions for fish and wildlife and to improve the overall health and freshwater flows of streams and riparian areas into the coastal bays and estuaries. Land protection through wetland conservation easements and subsequent restoration activities will ensure that habitat needs are met for critical wildlife species and that these systems will function as intended to improve water quality and quantity over the landscape and eventually into the coastal bays and estuaries. NRCS will invest more than $970,000 for the first year.

Nebraska Playa Wetlands: Nebraska Community Foundation

This project seeks to enroll 450 acres of playa wetlands to protect, restore, and manage wetland ecosystems and associated uplands. Restoration of these wetlands and associated upland buffers will help provide habitat for a variety of plants and animals that depend on thriving wetlands, wetland forests and grasslands, and creating a win-win situation for producers, migratory birds, resident wildlife and the citizens of rural communities. Wetland restorations are expected to address multiple resource concerns, including wildlife habitat, water quality and water quantity. NRCS will invest more than $860,000 for the first year.

The balance of the $28 million initial NRCS investment after the above projects are funded is $14.7 million which provides funding for four projects now in their second year.

Under the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is engaged in a whole-of-government effort to combat the climate crisis and conserve and protect our nation’s lands, biodiversity, and natural resources including our soil, air and water. Through conservation practices and partnerships, USDA aims to enhance economic growth and create new streams of income for farmers, ranchers, producers and private foresters. Successfully meeting these challenges will require USDA and our agencies to pursue a coordinated approach alongside USDA stakeholders, including State, local, and Tribal governments.

About WREP

WREP is a component of ACEP-WRE through which NRCS enters into agreements with eligible partners to target and leverage resources to address high priority wetland protection, restoration, and enhancement activities and improve wildlife habitat on eligible lands. WREP enables NRCS to collaborate with partners on high-priority wetland restoration projects to return critical wetland functions and improve wildlife habitat.

Through selected WREP projects, partners voluntarily work with agricultural producers to execute targeted wetland protection, restoration and enhancement activities on eligible agriculture lands. WREP enables effective integration of wetland restoration on working agricultural landscapes, providing meaningful benefits to farmers and ranchers who enroll in the program and to the communities where the wetlands exist.

Restoring wetland ecosystems helps filter sediments and chemicals to improve water quality downstream, enhance wildlife and aquatic habitat, reduce impacts from flooding, recharge groundwater and offers recreational benefits.

How to Get Involved

Are you looking to help restore the quality and abundance of our nation’s wetlands? Check with your local USDA Service Center for wetland restoration project opportunities. NRCS will determine if the acres you offer are eligible for the program. Agricultural producers with high priority acres, based on competitive selection, may receive an offer.

Wicker, Peters Reintroduce FLOODS Act

 

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and Gary Peters, D-Mich., chairman of the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Maritime, Freight, and Ports, today introduced the Flood Level Observation, Operations, and Decision Support (FLOODS) Act to establish a National Integrated Flood Information System. The legislation would improve the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) forecasting and communication of flood, tornado, and hurricane events.

“Flooding is a common and deadly natural disaster in the U.S., resulting in over $25 billion in annual economic losses,” said Wicker. “Events in my home state of Mississippi, such as the prolonged opening of the Bonnet Carré spillway and the Pearl River and Yazoo backwater floods, underscore the importance of an effective understanding and response to high water. This legislation would protect lives and property by directing NOAA to improve its flood monitoring, forecasting, and communication efforts. I am eager to see the measure advance for Mississippians and all Americans who face dangers caused by flooding.”

“Unexpected severe flooding has too often upended the lives of families and hard-working men and women in Michigan and across the nation,” said Peters. “I’m pleased to reintroduce this bipartisan bill that would help protect families and small businesses along high-risk shorelines and other communities by modernizing flood forecasts to provide more timely, actionable information. I am hopeful we can again pass this legislation through the Senate and look forward to enacting it into law.”

The Flood Level Observation, Operations, and Decision Support Act would:

· Establish a “National Integrated Flood Information System” to coordinate and integrate flood research at NOAA;

· Establish partnerships with institutions of higher education and federal agencies to improve total water predictions;

· Designate a service coordination hydrologist at each National Weather Service River Forecast Center to increase impact-based decision support services at State and local level;

· Evaluate and improve flood watches and warnings and communication of information to support coordinated flood management;

· Encourage NOAA to evaluate acoustic tracking and measuring of windstorms, use aerial surveys of floodwaters to improve flood mapping, and improve modeling of freshwater outflow into the ocean; and

· Establish a Committee to ensure coordination of Federal Departments with joint or overlapping responsibilities in water management.

–Senator Roger Wicker