Conservation Reserve Program - Exit Strategies
Conservation Reserve Program – Exit Strategies
By Russ Evans
In the rain-fed region of the inland Pacific Northwest (PNW) – especially the dryer, low rainfall regions that rely on summer fallow – the regular calls for Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) signup were met with enthusiasm by local landowners who had land that qualified as highly erodible, endangered species habitat, or otherwise unsuitable for annual crop production. This enthusiasm resulted in many counties with more than the legislated limit of 25 percent of their cropland acres consigned to CRP contracts.
This was manageable enough, as contracts expired annually and were replaced by either new contracts or renewals. However, in order to comply with new limits established in the 2008 Farm Bill, it all changed. A significant number of these long-term contracts will no longer be eligible for renewal.
Photo courtesy of PNDSA
Because of new limits established in the 2008 Farm Bill, hundreds of thousands of acres of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program may be converted back to annual crop productions.
Photo courtesy of PNDSA
The result: these non-renewing, expiring CRP contracts represent hundreds of thousands of acres within single counties – a situation becoming repeated across the nation.
Portions of currently protected areas may be eligible for continued protection under other federal programs. However, many landowners will look to replace the lost CRP revenue stream on the remaining acreage, most likely through annual crop production or livestock grazing.
In an ideal world, landowners would choose to bring their land back into annual crop production using direct-seed no-till methods. But, current CRP contract terms and conditions are not strategically aligned with the requirements of direct-seed no-till production systems.
To successfully direct-seed no-till CRP ground, growers must apply at least one burn-down spray operation in the early spring, when the grass is actively growing, to effectively terminate plant growth. Under the current terms of CRP contracts, which terminate on Sept. 30 every year, growers are not allowed to perform any farm operations prior to June 30 during the final year of the contract, without incurring a reduction in the final-year payment.
So, growers are faced with three choices: spray early and take the reduction in their CRP contract payment; forgo a year of production to spray the following spring; or revert to the age-old method of converting sod to seedbed by plowing and disking, seeding a fall crop, and hoping to harvest a crop the following year.
Obviously, the third option is exactly what Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association (PNDSA) hopes to avoid. But, given the terms of the CRP contracts signed 20 years ago, many growers and landowners who require the income will likely make that choice.
Photo courtesy of PNDSA
A local Pacific Northwest working group has been formed to find a solution. Representatives from the PNDSA, Spokane County Conservation District, Washington State University, USDA Risk Management Agency, NRCS and Washington State Farm Service Agency have worked to develop CRP exit strategies to encourage, allow and assist farmers with maintaining the environmental benefits of land formerly under CRP.
The working group has investigated some options, and will ask for input from groups with a vested interest in the outcome.
The best option for some CRP land is to remain under permanent cover. Fortunately, programs are in place for such land, following the sage advice, “Farm the best; enhance the rest.”
To pursue the “best,” the working group looked into changing the access dates and eliminating the penalty for early access. The proposal included a staged takeout strategy to allow growers early, penalty-free access to half their CRP acres, after Feb. 1 in the final year of the contract, provided it is direct-seed no-tilled and the farmer agrees to leave the remaining half in CRP for an additional year.
This seemed like a win-win compromise, one that should meet the needs of all stakeholders. Combined with a mentoring program to help growers through the process of successfully implementing a direct-seed no-till system, it should have been a triple-win option. This strategy, however, did not pass muster with the working group.
Achieving any compromise on CRP contract dates and penalties doesn’t have a strong track record. And, the chance of achieving a timely compromise without a huge investment of time and resources didn’t warrant pursuing this option any further. Thus, this strategy was quickly parked.
Despite this set back, the working group resolved that serious consequences were at stake, and finding a workable solution was a high priority. Much credit goes to the Washington State Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency offices, which have shown they are dedicated to finding an effective solution.
Because there is little flexibility in the CRP contract early entry dates, it is safe to assume that all contracts will go to expiration without any seedbed preparation or spraying. A new program will need to include an incentive – somewhat equivalent to replacing the annual CRP income – to facilitate the use of direct-seed no-till methods the following year.
Of course, given the agency involvement in this program, producers will need to meet all other conservation requirements. We also hope the opportunity arises to enhance incentives through the use of direct-seed no-till grower mentors, who have successfully used direct-seed no-till to convert CRP to cropland.
For more information contact:
Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association
P.O. Box 9428
Moscow, ID 83843
About the writer: Russ Evans is the executive director-operations for the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association.