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CRP challenges: Losing acres because of attractive crop prices, federal budget cuts

Last fall, for the fourth straight year, Thief River Falls, Minn., farmer Ken Asp chose not to re-enroll some of his farmland in the Conservation Reservation Program.

By Jonathan Knutson

Forum News Service

Last fall, for the fourth straight year, Thief River Falls, Minn., farmer Ken Asp chose not to re-enroll some of his farmland in the Conservation Reservation Program.

Enrolling the land made economic sense when he did it, in some cases as long as 20 years ago. But times have changed, and Asp now can do better, financially, farming the land than letting it sit idle.

“The returns (from farming the land) today project a lot better than they did when I enrolled it,” Asp says.

He’s not alone. Attractive crop prices since 2007 have encouraged agricultural producers nationwide to begin farming millions of acres that had been in the Conservation Reservation Program.

In the past two years alone, the number of CRP acres nationally has dropped from 31.2 million to 27 million. Of the 4.2-million-acre-decline, North Dakota and Montana accounted for a whopping 1.6 million acres, or 38 percent. Northwest Minnesota and parts of South Dakota also have seen large amounts of land leave the program.

Now, CRP is returning to the front burner. A general sign-up to enroll land runs May 20 through June 14.

The program pays landowners to take environmentally sensitive farmland out of production. The plants that grow on the land reduce soil erosion, improve soil and air quality and develop wildlife habitat.

Roughly 850,000 acres of land enrolled in North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana will expire Sept. 30, and the sign-up gives landowners a crack at re-enrolling that land in the program. Land not currently enrolled also could be offered.

But attractive grain prices will limit landowners’ interest.

“In my experience, interest in CRP tends to increase when wheat prices go down and decrease when wheat prices go up,” says Bruce Nelson, administrator of the Montana Farm Service Agency.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency offices administer CRP.

Wheat is Montana’s most important crop. In January of this year, wheat fetched an average of $8.40 per bushel in Montana, compared with $3.53 per bushel in January of 2006, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

To program supporters, who stress the program’s environmental and wildlife habitat benefits, the acreage decline is troublesome, even alarming.

“We’re extremely concerned about the overall loss in CRP,” says Dave Nomsen, vice president of government affairs for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.

Critics welcome the decline in acres. They say the program took too much land out of production, hurting rural communities and businesses that sell agricultural supplies and services.

“We applaud the trend,” says Steve Strege, executive vice president of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association. The Conservation Reserve Program should be reserved “for the most environmentally sensitive land.”

Farmers can’t put land into the program just because they want to. They make formal offers that are ranked on a number of factors, including air quality and wildlife habitat benefits. Only a percentage of offers receiving the highest scores will be accepted.

“It’s a very competitive process,” says Wanda Garry, who manages the program for Minnesota.

Federal deficit problems also cloud the outlook.

The next farm bill is widely expected to reduce authorized acreage nationally to 25 million acres. That would be 2 million fewer acres than today and 11.7 million fewer than the record 36.7 million in 2007.

To put those numbers in perspective, consider that the program was created to take 40 million acres of highly erodible acres out of production. So even at its peak, the program fell short of its original goal.

Aaron Krauter, Farm Service Agency executive director in North Dakota, notes that interest in the Conservation Reserve Program rose slowly through many years, with acreage peaking in 2006 and 2007. Then, when crop prices soared, acreage began declining.

Despite its recent slump, CRP, which dates back to the 1950s, remains one of America’s most important farm programs.

Nationwide, the program will make rental payments of $1.8 billion through 700,552 contracts in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, FSA says.

Texas leads the nation in acres. Montana ranks fourth, North Dakota fifth, Minnesota eighth and South Dakota 11th.

The Conservation Reserve Program also helps livestock producers during drought, Nelson says.

Last year in Montana, 110,000 acres were grazed and 145,000 acres were hayed in response to the drought, he says.

Farmers haven’t soured on the program, says Daryl Campbell, CRP program manager in South Dakota.

“They still like it. They may not be offering the large amount of acres they used to. But they still like having some of it (farmland) set aside,” he says.

Campbell and others say that many landowners are removing relatively large parcels of land, while renewing the contracts of relatively small parcels.

Often, the small parcels have special environmental importance.

Landowners also are choosier in selecting how much of a particular field to enroll, officials say.

In the past, landowners may have put an entire field into the program when only part of the land is highly erodible. Today, landowners might put in only the highly erodible portion.

“Some of the land expiring maybe isn’t as highly erodible as we’re trying to capture with enrollments of today,” says Garry, with the Farm Service Agency in Minnesota.

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