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USDA Won’t Release Land for Corn

August 3, 2008

By Joe Knight, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.

Aug. 3–The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week it would not allow land in the Conservation Reserve Program to be put into production without penalties.

The USDA had been under pressure from meat producers, the ethanol industry and some congressmen to allow farmers out of their CRP contracts, without penalty, so they could grow more corn.

The CRP offers annual payments for 10- to 15-year contracts to farmers who establish grass, shrubs and tree cover on environmentally sensitive lands.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer cited high corn and soybean yields and less-than-expected crop damage from spring floods among the reasons he chose not change the program.

“It is a huge, huge thing for fish and wildlife conservation in Wisconsin and across the country,” said Scott Hull, upland ecologist for the state Department of Natural Resources. Hull also is the farm bill coordinator for the bureau.

As of March, Wisconsin had about 530,000 acres enrolled in the CRP, he said.

The program is credited with producing an additional 13.5 million pheasants and 2.2 million wild ducks annually.

Wisconsin does not have any estimates of the numbers of wildlife helped by the program, but pheasant hunters have noticed an increase in wild pheasants in agricultural areas, and bird-watchers have noted increases in some species of grassland birds, changes that largely are attributed to the CRP, he said.

“We have a host of grassland songbirds that have done extremely well with (the) CRP,” he said.

Improvements in trout populations in the hilly Driftless Area of western and southwestern Wisconsin also are attributed, in part, to the CRP and stream buffer programs from the farm bill that have reduced the amount of soil entering streams.

Conservation groups say that although the CRP dodged a bullet with the USDA’s decision to not allow early withdrawals, the long-term prospects for the program are not good unless the government increases payments for the program to be competitive with what farmers can make renting or planting their land with corn or soybeans.

“It is imperative for CRP soil rental rates to get updated immediately,” said Dave Nomsen, Pheasant Forever’s vice president of government affairs, in a news release. “Updated soil rental rates would keep our most environmentally sensitive acres in conservation.”

Schafer said one of the factors in the CRP decision was that many landowners were choosing to take their land out anyway and to pay back rental rates and interest from their contracts.

USDA figures have shown a 50 percent increase in the number of landowners removing their land from the program in the past year, according to Ducks Unlimited.

Schafer also said 1.1 million acres of CRP land are set to expire in September and 8 million more acres during the following two years.

The overall enrollment in the CRP needs to drop to meet the lower acreage cap set by the 2008 farm bill of 32 million acres nationally. Currently, 34.7 million acres are enrolled.

However, conservation groups say enrollment will drop well bellow 32 million if payments through the CRP do not become more competitive.

The conservation groups say the CRP land helps support wildlife-based recreation estimated at more than $70 billion annually.

In other CRP news affecting mostly Western states, the USDA has opened some CRP lands to grazing and hay cutting. The National Wildlife Federation sued on the grounds that the USDA should have done an environmental impact statement, and the grazing and haying will hurt wildlife.

Some of the land is under a temporary injunction preventing haying and grazing.

Knight can be reached at 830-5835, 800-236-7077 or joe.knight@ecpc.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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