Should I Sign Up Again?

January 30, 2009 06:00 PM

Three Missouri landowners living just miles apart had different reasons for enrolling land in USDA's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). But they have two things in common: a special attachment to the natural landscape they helped create and decisions to make as their contracts expire.

Gregg and Nancy Staley, who farm near Rea, Mo., grow 1,600 acres of crops and run a 150-head cow–calf operation. The Staleys wanted to help wildlife and maximize the use of their acreage when they enrolled land bordering crop fields in CRP 15 years ago.
How CRP Works
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was created by the 1985 farm act. It is a new version of the federal cropland retirement programs that originated during the 1930s. Originally conceived as a way to reduce overproduction and prevent soil erosion on fragile land, CRP's function as wildlife habitat has become more prominent through the years.

For land to be enrolled in CRP, it must meet certain qualifications. There must be obvious environmental benefits—either controlling soil erosion or protecting water quality. The land must have been farmed for at least four years between 1996 and 2001, with production reported to USDA. Pastureland that could serve as a natural buffer against soil erosion or prevent soil from entering streams is also eligible.

Landowners who enroll acreage in the CRP program receive an annual payment for fulfilling their contract guidelines. They can receive cost-share assistance to establish CRP fields.
Landowners also can receive annual maintenance payments to assist in the upkeep of CRP land. An additional incentive of up to 20% of their annual payment is offered to landowners who re-enroll their land when their contracts—usually 10 or 15 years in length—expire.

The Staleys put much of their CRP land in field borders and buffer strips along streams flowing through their property. Land 30' to 60' from the stream was not highly productive cropland because the roots of trees by the edge of the stream took water and nutrients from his crops, Gregg notes.

"It's economically feasible and is better for us to put that land into CRP,” Gregg says. "It was better for the river and better for the wildlife.” Warm-season grasses in the buffer strips absorb chemicals in field runoff before it reaches the water. The buffer has no negative effects on crops, he adds.

Gary Gagnon of St. Joseph, Mo., works in the city and bought farmland with hunting in mind. He enrolled the land in CRP to return it to a natural state and attract wildlife.

Jay Shewmaker, of Cosby, Mo., who also works in town, owns 240 acres his ancestors acquired through the 1846 Homestead Act plus 160 acres more. An avid quail hunter, he became interested in CRP to create a wildlife habitat for recreational purposes.

Plant mix. Within CRP, there's an array of planting options from which landowners can choose. Gagnon planted portions of his 172 acres of CRP to mixtures of plants designed to restore rare and declining wildlife and prairie habitats; switchgrass and other native grasses; wildlife food plots and stream borders from 30' to 180' wide. Some of Shewmaker's CRP land is planted to forbs and legumes that provide habitat for quail and other upland birds.

As contracts expire, deciding whether to re-enroll in CRP weighs heavily on landowners. They are torn between their appreciation of wildlife and opportunities to cash-rent land to help absorb the rising cost of farm inputs, food and fuel.

"Cash-rental rates have gone sky-high,” Gagnon says. The cash-rent prices in Andrew County, where the landowners live, range from $65 to $290 an acre. CRP in that county pays landowners only $86 to $90 an acre, even after a 20% to 25% payment increase took effect in January 2008.

That was the first time that CRP had raised its annual payment rates in Jeff Powelson's memory. Powelson, a private land conservationist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, says payments are going to increase again. That will put the average payment at approximately $115 per acre. But even with the payment increase, some farmers could still receive twice as much income by cash-renting their land, Powelson says.

Weighing his options, Gregg gazes across his field, laced with buffer strips that provide habitat for the wildlife he loves and cares about. "It's something to see,” he says.

Editor's Note: Julia Shuck, an agricultural journalism student at the University of Missouri–Columbia, attended the Sonja Hillgren Field Reporting Institute this past fall.

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