Going back under the plow
WILLMAR -- Farmers in west central Minnesota are not rushing to convert Conservation Reserve Program lands back into crop production as fast as some had feared, but a significant amount of acres are being converted.
The Farm Service Agency is estimating that state-wide, farmers have renewed contracts on about 85 percent of the acres that were up for renewal on Sept. 30, said Greg Anderson, conservation director for the Minnesota FSA office.
The Agency estimates that contracts on roughly 382,000 acres were up for renewal, and that over 317,000 of the acres were either re-enrolled under new contracts for 10 years or extended for lesser periods.
Although it varies county-by-county, it is believed that farmers in the nine-county area around Willmar are re-enrolling acres at roughly the same rate as the state average. The counties include Big Stone, Chippewa, Kandiyohi, Lac qui Parle, Meeker, Pope, Renville, Swift, and Yellow Medicine.
The enrollment of marginal farmlands in the popular conservation program is credited with improving the outdoor environment of the region. CRP acres of perennial grasses and cover provide habitat for wildlife and reduce the nutrients and erosion reaching waterways.
There's no overstating the value of CRP lands to wildlife in the region.
"It's extremely important,'' said Jeff Miller, assistant wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Willmar.
Miller remembers making annual, summertime roadside surveys of pheasants and driving for 25 miles before he'd spot a ringneck. Since the introduction of CRP, the numbers of pheasants in the county has rebounded dramatically, he noted.
A spike in corn prices this year, followed by greatly improved prices for soybeans and wheat as well, has led many to worry. They have feared that farmers would not renew contracts and put the CRP grasslands back into row crop production.
That's exactly what is being seen in many areas, particularly to the west, according to Matt Holland, director of conservation for Pheasants Forever in Minnesota. Holland recently returned from a hunting trip to the Watertown, S.D., area. Everywhere he traveled in eastern South Dakota, he saw evidence of CRP grasslands having been plowed and prepared for crop production.
In this region, the CRP renewal period that ended Sept. 30 shows that the conversion rate isn't as dramatic.
A case in point is Lac qui Parle County, where contracts for nearly 3,000 CRP acres expired on Sept. 30. Farmers re-enrolled or extended contracts on 2,520 acres, reported Don Tweet, director of the FSA office in Lac qui Parle County. He said 480 acres were not renewed.
Another area county with sizeable amounts of CRP acreage is Pope County.
There were 3,156.5 acres of CRP land up for renewal on Sept. 30 in Pope County. Some 1,512.2 acres -- or nearly half -- were not renewed, but the net loss in conservation lands is not nearly as large as these numbers would indicate, according to Grant Herfindahl, FSA director in the county.
Herfindahl stated that 868 acres of land were added in an earlier, general sign-up period for the program. Also, farmers enrolled another 341.7 acres in the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program.
As a result, the net loss of lands in conservation programs in the county totals 302.5 acres.
Pope County has nearly 50,000 acres enrolled in CRP, so even the loss of 1,500 acres only equates to a three percent loss, he added.
Statewide, there are 1,767,958.7 acres of land enrolled in CRP in total, according to Jim Meisenheimer with the FSA state office in St. Paul.
There are certain pockets in the state where significant CRP acreage was not renewed on Sept. 30, according to Anderson.
But overall, he said "we have not seen any big drop off.''
A variety of factors come into play, but Anderson said it's apparent that many landowners are using the program for its intended purpose: "Farm the best and buffer the rest.''
He said most of the CRP acres are marginal lands, and consequently farmers are cautious about putting those lands back into production despite higher commodity prices. Most know the perils of adding to their production costs when banking on expectations of continued, high-commodity prices.
Nonetheless, there is no question that the improved prices for Minnesota's main crops are influencing decisions on conservation programs. It is proving more difficult to interest farmers in enrolling new lands in conservation programs, said the DNR's Miller.
He works with three different watershed groups, including the Shakopee Creek Headwaters Project. It has been offering bonuses to farmers willing to enroll lands in conservation programs to serve as buffer and filter strips for waterways. Despite the incentives and an advertising campaign, there have been no takers, he said.
Holland also offers a note of caution as CRP lands come up for renewal in 2008 and the years beyond. He is hoping that the new farm bill now under debate in Congress will continue to provide the incentives needed, or the loss of CRP acres will only increase.
Pheasant numbers in Minnesota are at a 40-year high. There is no question that CRP has played the biggest role in making that possible, said Holland. If farmers continue to convert more CRP land into production, the losses will be felt by all wildlife. Holland said that the loss of one-third or one-fourth of the CRP land in the state would have a "significant,'' adverse impact on the populations of wildlife.