With prices of crops rising, signups for CRP are slipping
Thursday, May 4, 2006 10:11 AM EDT
By Tim Spielman Associate Editor, Outdoor News.
St. Paul — Escalating farm land values, higher cash rent payments, and a continued focus on alternative fuel like ethanol are just a few factors officials say may have led to fewer Conservation Reserve Program signups and “re-ups” in April.
Landowners - some with soon-to-expire CRP contracts, others new to the program - had opportunities to extend, re-enroll, or join the program. That signup period ended April 28.
Depending on an “environmental benefits index” score, those with existing CRP contracts could qualify for extensions of differing terms, or full re-enrollment in the program. By staggering contracts, federal officials said they hoped to avoid years in which large numbers of contracts were set to expire. While likely successful in that endeavor, re-enrollments and extensions may not have been as prominent as hoped.
“From what I’ve heard, nationally (CRP re-enrollment and extensions) were about 70 percent,” said Kevin Lines, conservation easement manager for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. He said the national goal was 85 percent re-enrollment and or extensions.
“I’ve heard differing stories on how Minnesota fared, but I think it was higher (than the national level),” he said.
Federal officials hadn’t yet released final re-enrollment and extension numbers as of Outdoor News press time. But Greg Anderson, ag program specialist for the Minnesota USDA Farm Service Agency office, said extensions and re-enrollments in Minnesota were believed to be “extremely high,” but that general sign-ups were down from previous years.
Information at this point is still “preliminary,” he said.
Lines said statewide general signup for the program also may have fallen short of federal goals. He said the FSA, which administers the program, had hoped to gain about 2.5 million acres nationwide during the general signup, which was extended from April 14 to April 28. It’s possible only about 1 million acres were offered for participation in the CRP program.
State and federal agencies, along with a wealth of conservation organizations, consider this a critical time for the federal program that pays landowners to set aside “marginal” farmland for conservation purposes. Nationwide, there are about 36 million acres in CRP. The current federal cap is 39.2 million acres. Minnesota landowners have about 1.8 million acres enrolled in the program, but over 1 million acres of that set-aside is due to expire in the next three years - about 400,000 in 2007 and ’08 and nearly 300,000 in 2009.
John Devney, senior vice president for Delta Waterfowl, based in Bismarck, N.D., said in the Dakotas, and to some extent, in Minnesota, rental rates for ag land are outpacing what landowners are paid under CRP and other conservation programs. Further, landowners who were picked to extend their current contract - based on the EBI score - were offered the same rental rate they’d been receiving; only those accepted for re-enrollment and new sign-ups were eligible for increased payments (the current per-acre price for CRP land is about $48).
“Some producers are looking at it and saying they can’t afford another contract for the same base rental rate,” Devney said of some Dakota landowners. “If the cash rental payments are outpacing conservation payments, they’d take the cash rental payments every time.”
Devney said it didn’t help matters in the Dakotas that the CRP scoring system isn’t necessarily weighted to favor prairie pothole land in those states. Changes in federal farm bill language more favorable to the pothole region would inspire more Dakotans to take part in the program.
“We need to make sure we do everything we can to make sure the Prairie Pothole Region is a priority,” he said.
Devney said the appropriate amount of funding must be allocated to meet CRP acreage goals.
Some producers are receiving up to $90 per acre for rental of their farmland, he said. Others simply don’t want to be tied to conservation programs as the demand for ethanol increases the demand - and price for - corn.
Some landowners, who’ve been enrolled in the program, may have interest in continuing, for conservation’s sake, Lines said.
“If they’re already enrolled, already invested in the program, the may not be interested in farming anymore,” he said.
Many factors, including land prices and gas prices “add up to a highly competitive environment,” Lines said.