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Published August 24, 2010, 09:19 AM

Aug. 27 CRP signup deadline approaching fast

For the first time in four years, landowners nationwide have a crack at enrolling cropland in the Conservation Reserve Program.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

For the first time in four years, landowners nationwide have a crack at enrolling cropland in the Conservation Reserve Program.

But while many landowners have expressed interest in the program — at least in part because of higher rental rates in some counties — it’s unclear how much land actually will be offered for enrollment.

“We’ve had a lot of interest, judging by the phone calls. But there haven’t been many offers yet,” says Randy Tufton, executive director of the Farm Service Agency in northwestern Minnesota’s Norman County.

The deadline for CRP general signup 39, as FSA officially calls it, is Aug. 27.

CRP has become one of the government’s most important agricultural programs.

The voluntary CRP program, established in 1985, pays farmers to plant grass and trees to protect environmentally sensitive topsoil, improve water quality and enhance wildlife habitat.

A little more than 30 million acres currently are enrolled in the program, and the 2008 farm bill authorized USDA — of which FSA is a part — to maintain enrollment up to 32 million acres.

The current signup is open to cropland that meets several requirements, including having been planted in four of six years from 2002 to 2007.

The signup also is open to land already in the program in contracts expiring Sept. 30. About 4.5 million acres — the FSA website puts the figure at 4.7 million — fall into that category.

FSA officials say they expect about 4 million acres will be accepted into the program from offers made during signup 39.

Contracts awarded under the signup will be effective Oct. 1.

Ranking the offers

After the signup ends Aug. 27, FSA will analyze the offers and rank the environmental benefits they would provide. Increasing wildlife habitat, improving water quality and reducing erosion are among the benefits considered.

Also factored in in the ranking is the price that the landowner is asking. Offering land at a low price doesn’t guarantee acceptance, but it would help.

FSA says its goal is “optimizing environmental benefits per dollar for CRP rental payments.”

There’s no easy or simple answer in determining what price to ask for, says Andy Swenson, farm management specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service in Fargo.

“It’s kind of tricky. You want the price to be as high as possible, but you also want to set it low to give yourself the best chance” of having the offer accepted, he says.

FSA advises landowners to talk with their local USDA experts on how to improve their chances.

Pros, cons of enrolling

Owners of land that’s marginally productive or with persistent production problems have little difficulty deciding to offer it for CRP, he says.

“Some of it’s a no-brainer,” he says.

But the decision on whether to offer better cropland is more complicated, he says.

“The main issue is whether you’re better off, profitably-wise, farming it or putting it in CRP,” he says.

Putting land in the program allows landowners to know exactly how much

money they’ll make from it, which can be a big plus, Swenson says.

“It’s nice to know what the income is going to be,” he says.

But the CRP contracts typically are for 10 to 15 years, which can be a long time to be locked in, he says.

There also are costs associated with maintaining land in CRP, he says.

Some rental rates higher

South Dakota landowners are showing good interest in signup 39, says Daryl Campbell, conservation chief with the state FSA office in Huron.

In many South Dakota counties, rental rents to be offered are 10 to 20 percent higher than previous rates, reflecting a rise in land prices, he says.

CRP rental rates to be offered in Minnesota’s Norman County have risen about $3 to $5 per acre, says Tufton, the county’s FSA executive director.

State FSA officials in Minnesota weren’t available for comment.

In Montana, rental rates for signup 39 vary considerably but on balance won’t be higher than previous CRP rates, says Glenn Patrick, chief conservation specialist with the state Montana FSA office in Bozeman.

In general, out-of-state residents and retired farmers are more likely to be interested in offering their land for CRP, he says.

Active Montana producers — motivated in part by good growing conditions and excellent yields this summer — are less interested in participating in signup 39, he says.

Pheasants a factor

It’s difficult to generalize about CRP rental rates in North Dakota, except to say that they’re based on soil types found within individual counties, says Jim Jost, state farm program director for the North Dakota FSA office in Fargo.

The level of interest in signup 39 varies considerably across the state. It’s highest in southwestern North Dakota, which reflects economic benefits connected with pheasant-hunting on CRP land there, Jost says.

Southwestern North Dakota landowners with existing CRP contracts that expire Sept. 30 are particularly interested in signup 39, says Jeff Potts, Dickinson, N.D.-based farm bill biologist for Pheasants Forever.

He’s held workshops designed to help landowners learn more about CRP, the details of signup 39 and how CRP can work in tandem with other programs that promote wildlife habitat.

To submit CRP offers, producers must visit their local CRP office.