Good, bad or ugly?
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Dec. 1 that the next general enrollment period for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is open. Sign-up can continue through Feb. 26, 2016.
December 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of CRP, and as the enrollment period gets underway, area ranchers, wildlife enthusiasts and USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) officers weighed in on the pros and cons of this government program and how it impacts the agricultural industry, the environment, and the people in rural communities.
“There is a lot of interest in the CRP sign-up already,” said Owen Fagerhaug, South Dakota FSA CRP Manager. “CRP has a definite purpose and a target audience; CRP is for someone who wants to improve their land, take marginal parcels out of production, and receive a payment for those acres.”
Fagerhaug explained that the open enrollment is focusing on marginal crop ground, which appeals to many people who farmed poor land when corn was at $8/bu. Now that it has settled back to $3/bu., it doesn’t pencil out to farm this marginal land, so many folks are looking for alternative ways to derive income from this ground.
“With CRP, farmers can still earn some income from this marginal crop land, and we can create some wildlife habitat once again,” said Fagerhaug. It’s economic for the participant and beneficial for conservationists, too.”
Payments for CRP acres vary by county based on soil types and are reflective of the rates of case rents in those areas. For example, the average rental rate in Moody County is $251/acre; Davison County, $141/acre; Aurora, $105/acre; Hansen, $172/acre; Tripp, $57; Fall River Custer $25/acre; Jones, $43/acre; and Butte County, $40/acre.
“These are competitive bid offers, ranked nationwide, and are based off of environmental benefits, types of soils and the types of grasses the landowner is willing to establish,” said Fagerhaug. “All applications get submitted to the ranking process and are graded on a points system before receiving a bid offer. Before applying, I would encourage folks to explore their options and have discussions with local county offices. What can I do to enhance this cover? What can I do to get the extra 5-20 points to maximize the offer? General sign-up is going to be very competitive this year. The higher the score has the better potential of being accepted.”
Matt Morlok, Pheasants Forever assistant director, offered some tips for getting the highest score for acres applied to the program.
“There are extra points for adding diverse seedings like wildflowers into their plantings,” said Morlock. “Look into planting an eight-species grass planting with seven wildflowers in it to support the pollinator habitat. Also, make sure you’re offering your worst production acres to help with the offer. If the land is more susceptible to winter erosion, there will be some bonus points.”
For Bill Kluck, a rancher from Mud Butte, S.D. and South Dakota Stockgrowers Association president, CRP has several unintended consequences that are harmful to rural communities.
“I don’t blame the individual landowner for signing up for CRP and earning payments, but at the same time, the CRP contracts drive up land rent rates, and makes it more difficult for young producers to get started in production agriculture,” said Kluck. “What CRP does is enable the older rancher to put ground in CRP and get paid to do nothing with the land, but if that opportunity wasn’t there, a young producer might have the opportunity to farm it. It takes land out of production and takes away opportunities to farm and ranch.”
With the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, the number of acres in CRP will go from 32 million aces down to a 24 million cap by 2017. Contracts on 1.64 million acres of CRP are set to expire on Sept. 30, 2016, and Fagerhaug said as these acres are released, there are indeed potential opportunities for young producers to take advantage of.
“There is a program in place called the Transition Incentive Program, which offers avenues for young producers to rent the land as it expires out of a CRP contract,” said Fagerhaug. “With this program, there is an incentive for the older generation to rent that land out and get payments on that ground. It’s been successful in some areas already, but the challenge is getting the two parties together.”
Kluck said the Stockgrowers’ policy on CRP aligns with his personal views, and another concern the organization has is that any time the government offers a safety net, it costs tax payers money.
“CRP is government interference,” said Kluck. “Since our government is 18 trillion dollars in debt, where are they getting the money to fund this program, among others? The tax payer pays for this program. There were a lot of farmers who tore up ground to farm that never should have been plowed in the first place, and now they are getting paid because they made a mistake? We are interfering with the free market here. I know the intentions of CRP are good, but if you have these safety nets, you’re more willing to make risky decisions. As farmers and ranchers, if we don’t have the backup, we think twice before making a decision that could have huge ramifications on our bottom line.”
Kluck granted that CRP has benefited wildlife in his area; however, with the added population of game, the predator population also grows.
“In our area, the CRP ground becomes a haven for coyotes,” said Kluck. “With so much cover, the population of coyotes exploded. It’s great that wildlife have a chance to thrive; however, somewhere along the line, we are doing the wrong thing when we discourage production of the land and encourage free payments.”
Meanwhile, Morlock says that CRP allows wildlife habitat to flourish on marginal ground, benefiting all types of wildlife.
“CRP puts acres that have poor-quality soil that’s too sandy or rocky into a contract that allows the land to be improved upon whether that’s through planting a variety of grass seeds and wildflowers or allowing the land to rest,” said Morlok. “CRP land becomes prime habitat for wildlife. It allows for nesting of pheasants, molting for deer, and cover for waterfowl. Sure, coyotes are probably found in the CRP hunting for mice, but biologically, I wouldn’t correspond more CRP acres with an increased population of coyotes. Ultimately, wildlife is a by-product of CRP.”
According to the USDA, since CRP was implemented on Dec. 23, 1985, the program has “prevented more than 9 billion tons of soil from eroding, enough soil to fill 600 million dump trucks; reduced nitrogen and phosphorous runoff relative to annually tilled cropland by 95 and 85 percent respectively; sequestered an annual average of 49 million tons of greenhouse gases, equal to taking 9 million cars off the road; and created nearly 2.7 million acres of restored wetlands.
“The carbon sequestering thing is the biggest joke I’ve ever heard of,” said Kluck. “As a rancher, I rotational graze my cattle, and it’s helped my range conditions and improved production. Any rancher who wants to run his ranch right, is going to have a certain amount of carbon sequestering. The entire premise of carbon sequestering allows large corporations to buy carbon credits. As a result, they are paying you to do the right thing, so they can do the wrong thing somewhere else. It doesn’t make any sense. If the government would stay out of things, they would see the rancher does pretty well at managing the land on their own.”
Kluck’s neighbor and fellow cattle rancher Larry Stomprud, also of Mud Butte, says he isn’t opposed to CRP, but agrees with Kluck that taking land out of production drives up the price of land.
“When land is placed in CRP, it takes those acres out of production, and when you take grazing lands out of production, this increases the price of pasture,” said Stomproud. “Any time land is taken out of production, it reduces the opportunity for everybody, not just young producers. It’s definitely a concern. On the other hand, there is a time and a place for CRP. Any time you allow cover on the land and live plants instead of bare soil, it’s beneficial. I have reservations about climate change, but cover on bare soil is a good thing.”
“We have four tree patches that we’ve put into continuous CRP over the years; it’s our way of cost-sharing the trees that we’ve planted for windbreaks,” added Stomprud, who serves as the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association (SDCA) Vice President and is on the board of directors for the South Dakota Farm Bureau. “Using a state or federal program to subsidize the expenses of planting and maintaining trees makes sense to me. I like the fact that there is a program that offers incentives to put marginal crop ground back into grass and keep a cover on it. On the other hand, I don’t like to see land that is broke up for planting corn, and then in a few years, there’s the option to just plant it back and put it into CRP without any repercussions.”
Speaking on behalf of SDCA, Stomprud says the organization has three points when considering CRP. First, SDCA supports downsizing CRP acres. Second, the group supports the elimination of subsidies on new breaking or sodbuster programs. Third, SDCA supports funding of all conservation programs without sacrificing one more than another, meaning if there is a cut, SDCA doesn’t want the bulk of the cuts going to CRP.
“For someone in a commercial pheasant operation, which is an agricultural business, then CRP makes a lot of sense,” said Stomprud. “As a rancher, I could certainly choose to manage my land for more wildlife, but is that the highest and best use of that land? I don’t particularly think so, but for the conservationists and consumers who want more wildlife, CRP is their way to pay for that goal. The government doesn’t always know best, and if was going to bet on someone, I would lean toward the rancher. For most people, the intent of the program is to reestablish a living cover on the land, particularly on marginal land and highly erodible land. If that benefits wildlife, that’s great. But I don’t think that’s the intent of people who participate in the program.”
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