By Nick Simonson
With the announcement of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) sign-up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), beginning on Dec. 9 and running through Feb. 28, 2020, conservation groups, environmentalists, sportsmen and operators reacted with great excitement as approximately seven million acres will be available under the program’s complex contract system. With the 2018 Farm Bill phasing in a raised cap to 27 million acres and a couple million still available under the previous 24 million acre cap, the possibility of seeing more grass in the ground, more birds and deer in the field, and more money in farmers’ pockets over the next few years is quite real, according to FSA specialist Jay Hochhalter.
“Over the last 10 to 12 years the number of acres enrolled in CRP has declined, and a lot of that was due to the Farm Bill, we went from a high 30 million acre statutory cap down to about 24 million acres,” he related on the recent history of the program, continuing “the 2018 Farm Bill will gradually increase it from 24 million up to 27 million, so we’ve got some opportunity to improve and increase the number of acres enrolled in CRP.”
Current tallies show approximately 22 million acres enrolled in the program nationwide, with roughly 1.2 million acres in North Dakota and South Dakota. In the 2015 sign-up period, about 74,000 acres entered the enrollment process in North Dakota, but only around 6,000 were accepted. In South Dakota the tallies were more abysmal, with just over 42,000 acres entered and a scant 101 accepted by the program. Hochhalter explains that this was due primarily to the 24 million acre cap in place on CRP at the time.
“When North Dakota landowners competed with other landowners in other states, there wasn’t a high acceptance in any state due to the limited number of acres, only the most environmentally high-scoring offers were accepted nationwide,” he related, adding that “North Dakota fared fairly well over the years on their continuous sign up … [having] some targeted wetland restoration practices and safe habitat practices to increase waterfowl and upland nesting birds and we had some very strong allocations we were able to use to help secure contracts on those acres.”
Formulas & Economics
According to Hochhalter, the sign-up process results in all applications being reviewed on a nationwide scale against six primary factors that determine the acres to be enrolled, based on the greatest need and the biggest impact they will have for conservation of the marginal spaces on farms throughout the country.
“The weighting factors essentially revolve around specifically-identified environmental issues, including: (i) type of planting and its benefits for soil and water health, (ii) soil properties including erosion, (iii) carbon sequestration in the soil, (iv) what amount that landowners will accept and if that amount is less than the maximum allowed, (v) long-term benefits and (vi) CRP existence after contract expiration,” he explained.
Along with those benefits to the land factored into contract selection, ND FSA Executive Director Brad Thyckeson touts CRP as a powerful tool to help with profitability on farms throughout the region.
“When you have the ability to take some of the acres that are marginal or that aren’t highly productive and that we lose money on, this is a program that can make the whole farm more profitable,” he stated, “we don’t want this to be a bail-out program for a producer, but we want to make sure this program is available so they can maximize the economics and efficiency of the land they’re operating,” he concluded.
Many factors are in play which will drive producers to consider CRP under the expanding cap. Among the economic concerns are weather, supply and the current trade war going with China and other foreign purchasers of American grains and farm products.
“These are tough times, mother nature hasn’t been kindly to us and we’re in this tariff war where the prices are down,” Thyckeson said, adding that excessive supply of corn, soybeans and wheat in the light of that trade battle also sets the stage for a successful CRP sign-up, “the idea behind CRP is to take some of that land out of production and get it back into habitat and make that commodity price a little more attractive to keep that farm profitable,” he concluded, referencing that reduced supply should help stabilize prices in light of demand as CRP takes hold after the enrollment process. As it does, benefits to wildlife should become apparent as well.
The Welfare of Wildlife
For sportsmen and conservationists, since the inception of federal set-aside programs for marginal lands began in the 1960s with Soil Bank and the creation of CRP in the 1980s, the abundance of huntable game and wildlife has swung with the amount of acres placed in these conservation programs. As the acres have waxed, as was the case in the early and mid-2000s, North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota saw some of their highest pheasant harvests in recent memory. As acres have come out over the past handful of seasons, and carrying capacity for birds, deer and other wildlife has waned, results have faltered to recent and in some cases, historic lows.
“Over the course of time with the evolution of CRP, we’ve seen wildlife numbers spike as the acres of CRP have increased, and likewise as we’ve started into our decline and lost about half of our acres, it’s put some stress on some of those nesting areas and habitat areas where we can raise the birds that we need to,” explained Hocchalter, “same thing on the deer population side of it, I think we saw some declines occur fairly rapidly back when the CRP acres started to come out, so the benefits for the wildlife enthusiast have been documented to be greatly enhanced,” he continued, adding that the benefits to non-game and threatened or endangered species are also heightened by CRP, and help stave off government intervention for their preservation on private lands.
Both Hochhalter and Thyckeson encourage those operators and landowners interested in enrolling their acres in CRP to contact their county FSA office for more information, and to get started early on the process. While it is not done on a first-come-first-served basis, early interaction with specialists and biologists from partner groups such as Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and state wildlife agencies can help better prepare landowners for the process, find cost-sharing solutions, and avoid the rush of applications that often come near the end of the sign-up period. For more information on the CRP sign-up going on now, visit fsa.usda.gov.
Featured Photo: A stand of big bluestem makes up a stretch of CRP, providing cover for upland birds and big game while preventing erosion of the soil below from wind and water.