SALEM, Ohio – When the Conservation Reserve Program was created in 1985, John Stevenson was the executive director for Ohio’s Farm Service Agency, which oversees the program.
Now, as the federal program celebrates its 20th year and after a hiatus from the FSA, Stevenson finds himself back at the helm, watching Ohio farmers and landowners continue their roles in conserving the nation’s natural resources.
Stevenson recalls the program got off to a slow start and “took some catching on,” but said today’s 325,000-plus acres enrolled in Ohio alone proves CRP has both staying power and effective results.
About the program. The Conservation Reserve Program lets landowners enroll highly erodible and other crop ground in the program under a 10- or 15-year contract. The contract says the landowner must plant grasses, trees or other vegetation as cover crops to protect the topsoil, or take other conservation measures, according to the FSA.
In return, the USDA pays the landowner an annual rental payment as well as up to half the cost of the project.
Congress created the program through the 1985 farm bill, according to Darlene Rhodes, Farm Service Agency county executive director in Ashtabula, Geauga and Lake counties.
“At the time, more than 100 million acres of farmland met the definition of highly erodible and we were losing massive amounts of topsoil through wind and water-driven erosion.
“Today CRP is responsible for saving an estimated 450 million tons of topsoil every year,” Rhodes said.
National data shows through April 2006, CRP has also restored 2 million acres of wetlands and 2 million acres of buffers. In addition, it helps provide cleaner water and restores wildlife habitat.
“It’s not all about the great big things. Many little fields or parcels add up to make a big difference.”
Conservation chief, Ohio FSA
Buckeye help. “Ohio doesn’t show up on the rankings with big acres, but we rank high in the number of contracts enrolled,” said Todd Brace, chief of conservation programs for the Ohio FSA. Ohio ranks ninth nationally in contracts awarded.
“That shows the conservation philosophy Ohioans have, that they want to help. If you’ve got big or little acreage and interest, you can apply,” he said.
Options. Through CRP, landowners can take part in tree and windbreak plantings, grassed waterways, filter strips, riparian buffers, wildlife habitat preservation, wetlands preservation and more.
According to Brace, many farmer-landowners can take advantage of enrollment options to cost-share fencing to keep livestock out of streams, and to provide non-stream watering options for those animals.
Brace also says Ohio farmers are “just getting into” CRP’s farmable wetlands provision, including an option to enroll those pesky wet spots in fields.
There’s no minimum acreage requirement for this option, and the farmer can still farm around the wet spots, collect the rental payment and cut losses in the pocketbook, Brace said.
Eligible. Certain restrictions apply to parcels up for enrollment in CRP, including having been actively farmed a certain number of years before the signup.
These restrictions sometimes make parcels ineligible, and Brace suggests landowners work closely with their county FSA office to determine what parts of their property are eligible for signup.
Added security. CRP enrollment makes sense for many parcels in Ohio and nationwide, Brace said. And there are added benefits to getting involved right now.
“If you get signed up for CRP now, when the Conservation Security Program comes to your watershed, you’ll be better off,” Brace said.
The Conservation Security Program provides funds for a limited number of watersheds nationwide every year as a way “to pay farmers for doing a good job,” Brace said.
Farms are ranked based on the number of conservation projects they’ve done; the more conservation-friendly a farm is, the higher it ranks and the more money the farm is eligible for.
“Bottom line, you can utilize CRP to rank higher in CSP, and that’s very worth it,” Brace said.
Matured. Between 2007 and 2010, almost half of all CRP contracts nationwide will mature, according to Brace. In 2007 alone, more than 16 million acres are poised to leave the program.
In order to keep landowners involved with conservation, contracts on 13 million of those acres are being negotiated through re-enrollment and extensions.
Depending on how a land parcel ranks on a nationwide index of environmental benefits, landowners may be offered a two- to five-year extension on their existing contract or, for the most environmentally beneficial parcels, a new 10-year contract, Brace said.
Still going. During the most recent signup, which ran from late March through late April, USDA accepted an additional 1 million acres into the program.
“We’ve got to keep looking at opportunities for farmers. It’s not all about the great big things. Many little fields or parcels add up to make a big difference,” Brace said.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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At a glance: CRP enrollment
Rent average: $53.44 per acre
Rent total: $1.76 billion
Rent payments: $95.76/acre
Rent payments: $87/acre
Rent payments: $66.55/acre