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Published March 22, 2010, 07:46 AM

New ideas aim to get ‘highest amount of benefits’ from CRP

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — From a tractor seat this spring, Gordon Heber knows what he’ll witness as winter releases its grip on the 1,200 acres of farmland and prairie he owns in Douglas County: a burst of wildlife that includes pheasants, fawns and ducks.

By: Thom Gabrukiewicz, Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, S.D.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — From a tractor seat this spring, Gordon Heber knows what he’ll witness as winter releases its grip on the 1,200 acres of farmland and prairie he owns in Douglas County: a burst of wildlife that includes pheasants, fawns and ducks.

“It’s just amazing,” says the Sioux Falls, S.D., resident, who spends about 70 days a year tending to his corn, soybeans and hay — as well as the numerous windbreaks, enhanced waterways, grasslands and wetlands he’s added through the Conservation Reserve Program.

“As a landowner, if I like wildlife, I can pick and choose what conservation things are most beneficial to wildlife I’d like to have on my property,” adds Heber, who has about 45 percent of his land locked into CRP contracts. “And that makes you feel really good.”

A new CRP general signup will help save thousands of acres of wilderness habitat across the country, including land in South Dakota that’s good for duck, pheasant, bobwhite quail and prairie grouse populations, conservationists say.

The general signup — the first since 2006 — will happen later this year, after an Environmental Impact Statement is filed, says U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“It is my goal to ensure that we maximize CRP enrollment — and holding a general CRP signup is an additional step we can take to enroll acres in this program,” he says.

That affirmation comes at a time when millions of CRP acres are set to expire and farmers recalculate the economic benefits of crops vs. conservation. In South Dakota, that pits profitable soybean and corn crops for biofuels and animal feed against the state’s reputation as the best upland gamebird hunting destination in the world. And to each argument, there are positives and negatives.

Renewed commitment

Vilsack’s announcement doesn’t necessarily mean a philosophical shift within USDA and the Obama administration, but it is a commitment to use a successful tool in different ways, Farm Service Agency Administrator Jonathan Coppess says.

Those new ideas, which Vilsack outlined in a meeting with Pheasants Forever members at a February dinner in Minnesota, include reconnecting children with the outdoors, sequestering carbon dioxide should comprehensive climate legislation pass through Congress and, above all, bolstering rural economic development.

“We’re targeting the limited acres and funding toward where it does the most conservation good and gets us the highest amounts of benefits, so that’s not a change,” Coppess says. “A lot of these lands, you just see an incredible resurgence of pheasants in parts of the country and wildlife and what that then brings — and what the secretary’s pointing out — is how CRP fits into his bigger vision of regional rural development, how all of these things play into it. You use all the tools the USDA has to help rural economies.”

The 25-year-old CRP program protects millions of acres across the U.S. from topsoil erosion by paying landowners rent to keep the lands unplowed or establish native grasses, shrubs, trees and wetlands. The contracts last from 10 to 15 years and pay, on average, $53 an acre.

Farmers, ranchers and landowners will get $1.7 billion in payments this year.

While curbing soil erosion was the primary goal of the program, it’s also led to better water quality, more and better wildlife habitat and more wildlife, conservationists say.

“We know that CRP has a lot of benefits for pheasants, but also for our prairie grouse and all our nongame migratory birds,” says Chad Switzer, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks terrestrial program administrator. “Some of those birds are really struggling with their populations, and anytime you keep habitat on the ground or add new grassland — quality grassland habitat — that’s a good thing.”

Nationally, about 4.4 million CRP acres are set to expire in September. Another 14.2 million acres are slated to expire between 2011 and 2013.

In South Dakota, 190,986 acres expired Sept. 30. Another 606,122 acres will expire between 2010 and 2013.

The state has about 1.2 million CRP acres enrolled and reached a peak of 1.8 million acres in 1998.

Conservation vs.

good business

With commodity prices running high and a new generation of farmers clamoring for land, it’s sometimes hard to balance the good CRP has meant for conservation vs. what is a good business decision, landowners say.

“I like the program, but I don’t like what it does to small communities,” says Paul Brandt of Clear Lake, S.D., who raises corn and soybeans and feeds cattle and hogs in Deuel County. He says he has a few acres in CRP, mostly in shelter belts.

“You know, there’s a benefit to wildlife, and we’ve certainly seen that in Deuel County,” he says. “But you really don’t really have an industry based on that here.”

According to GF&P statistics, sportsmen spent $1.4 million hunting pheasants in Deuel County in 2008. The average value of an acre of Deuel County pastureland in 2008 was $1,160, with an average cash rental rate of $42.20, according to USDA statistics.

Brant uses the example of what he says he watched happen in Deuel County when about 40,000 productive acres were enrolled in CRP 10 years ago.

“If a guy could farm 2,000 acres, that’s 20 families that could have made money on those 40,000 acres,” he says. “So it did quite a bit to the local communities. Those input costs of $75 to maybe $100 an acre didn’t get spent in the local communities, so there’s some offset there.”

Brant and other landowners says CRP rental payments are completely outstripped by what a landowner can get if he or she rents it out to farming.

“You have to have a rental rate that competes with crop farming,” Brant says. “It’s just a different perspective. When you’re farming, you sometimes have to go fence line to fence line, ’cause if the land is tillable, you till it. You’re competing against the neighbor next door who’s cash-renting his ground for $120 an acre. If you don’t go paying the going rate, you’re not going to be in the farming business anymore.”

‘Putting pencil to paper’

The government, Coppess says, simply has a set amount for the program.

“We do our best to try and keep that in line with the local markets,” he says. “I think it’s going to be very hard to compete. I mean, we’ve seen that with commodity prices going up in the last few years. But again, reminding the farmers of the other benefits for it, I think will help. There’s more to the program than the rental payments.”

And in South Dakota, that means pheasants. Sport hunters spent more than $219 million during the 2007 and 2008 seasons chasing the state bird.

Most of those birds spring from CRP set-aside acres — from grassland nesting areas to shelter belts and wetlands where hens and roosters find refuge in winter.

“I know a lot of guys are pushing pencils to paper, and for some, it’s just more economical to convert land back and farm it,” the GF&P’s Switzer says. “Others have a different priority, a different objective with their management. They want to try and maintain a balance of wildlife habitat on their land.”

Heber acknowledges the economics of putting profitable cropland back into production. He’s got a large piece of tillable Douglas County land coming out of CRP in 2011.

“I’ll enroll some of it, the marginal portions, but I’ll probably farm the rest,” he says. “But for me, conservation programs allow me to do a whole lot more for conservation and wildlife than I can afford to do on my own.”

Seeking the perfect balance

CRP must shift continually in search of perfect balance

And what’s good for CRP is good for pheasants, says Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever’s vice president of governmental affairs.

“Considering the severity of this winter and sizable number of acres set to expire from CRP this year, the secretary’s announcement is very welcome news for wildlife and hunters,” Nomsen says. “USDA’s actions will benefit birds tomorrow.”

As CRP goes forward, officials with USDA know they must be able to continually shift the program, take advantage of different practices, to find a balance between what’s good for the land and what makes the most economic sense for the landowner.

“We need to do a better job of listening to the farmers who are in the program, the landowners in the program, and see what they are seeing with the program, what things are working and what things aren’t, and we can actually make adjustments,” Coppess says. “But you also want to be careful. You don’t want to fix what isn’t broken. For 25 years, CRP has not been broken in no real way, shape or form. And a lot of what we need to do now, well, I don’t want to say tinkering, just continue to do the improvements to better target, shape and use what we have.”