Options sought for expiring CRP acres | TSLN.com

Options sought for expiring CRP acres

DTN file photo by Jim PatricoNationally, 2.97 million acres will come out of CRP this month, with three states - Texas, Colorado and Kansas - accounting for half of those acres.

FORT MORGAN, CO (DTN) – Farmers, landowners and conservationists are looking at what options may be available for 436,000 acres across the state that will move out of USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program at the end of this month.

While CRP payments will end, landowners and others are looking at what can be done to continue conservation practices and avoid putting the full amount of land back into crop production.

Colorado initially had about 714,000 acres set to expire this year, but about 40 percent of those acres were eligible for extensions. However, too many acres did not score well in USDA’s environmental benefits index, meaning that contracts will expire on the 436,000 acres.

“A lot of guys with CRP acres are obviously worried about it,” said Leland Swenson, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. “Most of this land hasn’t been farmed in 25 years.”

Nationally, 2.97 million acres will come out of CRP this month, but three states – Texas, Colorado and Kansas – will account for half the total land involved. Texas has 691,107 acres expiring, and Kansas has 363,949 acres expiring.

At a meeting last week in Fort Morgan, farmers and conservationists raised the issue with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-CO, who had written Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in July about options for expiring CRP acres. Bennet said he may look at what could be done to have a provision in climate legislation to extend CRP for the carbon sequestration benefits.

“They are already having some plow-outs, and what is going to happen with those acres?” said Darlene Jensen, executive vice president of the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts.

Swenson said allowing CRP acres to expire now seems contradictory with policies advocating carbon sequestration and using biomass for renewable energy. “When I started getting calls about it, it just blew my mind,” Swenson said.

Swenson added that part of the problem in Colorado stems from USDA officials in different parts of the state using different indexes to calculate environmental benefits. Acreage that did not score high enough in one area of the state would have scored higher elsewhere.

“If they had equalized it, they would have figured out they are taking out some of the most highly erodible land,” Swenson said.

Understanding the scenarios, Colorado state officials also are trying to figure out what can be done to keep the land in some type of grass, grazing system and also how much carbon that would keep in the ground. Even if the land qualifies for a carbon program, officials realize that would not generate the same kind of revenue as a CRP payment. Colorado officials have a couple of demonstration projects for grazing on former CRP acres as well.

One question raised in Colorado is whether the land must convert back into crop production to protect base acreage. But as a condition of the commodity title of the farm bill, a landowner is not required to crop the land to continue receiving direct payments, said Robert Stephenson, director of environmental and conservation programs at USDA.

“When a CRP contract retires, that base will be returned or made available for the program,” Stephenson said. “That does not bring with it an obligation to break the land out.”

Landowners do have to have enough land made available to qualify for the base. Landowners also have options to enroll for buffers in the continuous CRP program, Wetlands Reserve Program or Grassland Reserve Program. The farm bill also asks USDA to give CRP land special status when going back into production to enroll in the Conservation Stewardship Program.

Another option for producers would be biomass matching USDA payments for selling biomass from the land to a cellulosic plant or other energy plant that would convert the biomass to energy. However, that requires having such a facility become approved to receive biomass crops for energy conversion.

There had been as many as 3.9 million acres projected to come out of CRP this year, but USDA opened up an extension signup that ended up extending contracts on about 1 million acres. While contracts were extended, USDA did not have a general signup for CRP this year because the 2008 farm bill lowered the cap on CRP acres from 39.2 million to 32 million, effective Oct. 1.

Conservation groups such as Pheasants Forever and Quails Forever now are sending out action alerts to members seeking to push USDA for a new general signup, as well as expanding a CRP-affiliated program called State Acres For wildlife Enhancement, or SAFE. The wildlife groups are also calling for members to testify at nine USDA hearings on CRP across the country that are scheduled to begin next week.

Food processors and major grain companies have been pushing for more acres to come out of CRP, ideally with that land going back into crop production to boost the supplies of available grain across the country.