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Published March 29, 2011, 11:46 AM

Key conservation program has new signup under way

Area landowners on balance weren’t all that excited about enrolling in the Conservation Reserve Program last fall.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Area landowners on balance weren’t all that excited about enrolling in the Conservation Reserve Program last fall.

Now they have another crack at enrolling — and usually at higher per-acre rental rates than last year. But it’s too soon to predict if the results will be different this time.

While landowners are asking questions about the new signup, they haven’t made many offers yet, say officials with the Farm Service Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’re seeing good interest in county (FSA) offices across the state” but few actual offers, say Jim Jost, FSA state farm program director in North Dakota.

It’s still early in the process. The new signup began March 14 and continues through April 15. Contracts awarded through the new signup become effective Oct. 1.

The contracts for about 4.4 million acres currently enrolled in the program nationwide are scheduled to expire Sept. 30. Landowners with those contracts can try to reenroll the land, and offers can be made to enroll other eligible land as well.

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

Last year, 4.3 million acres nationwide were accepted into the program. Of those acres, 57 percent was enrolled land that was due to come out of the program, FSA says.

The 2010 enrollment period, which had an Aug. 27 signup deadline, wasn’t particularly well received in this region, says Bruce Nelson, state executive director of the Montana FSA.

Most producers were busy with harvest at the time, giving them less opportunity to investigate and evaluate the signup, he says.

Also, grain prices were rising, making CRP less attractive, he says.

Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota all saw CRP acreage decline last year, according to USDA’s summary of the 2010 signup, known as general signup 39.

- In Montana, the contracts for 386,881 CRP acres expired, while 224,198 acres were accepted into the program last fall.

- In North Dakota, contracts for 254,648 acres expired, while 151,985 acres were accepted into the program.

- In South Dakota, contracts for 144,779 acres expired, while 124,754 acres were accepted.

- In Minnesota, contracts for 68,109 acres expired, while 44,530 acres were accepted.

Differences this time

The timing of this year’s signup is better than that of general signup 39, Nelson and others say.

CRP rental rates generally are higher, too, reflecting higher cash-rent prices in the region.

In North Dakota, average CRP rental rates by country range from unchanged to as much as $9 per-acre higher from 2010, with many counties showing an increase of $2 to $5 per acre, Jost says.

In Montana, average per-acre rental rates have risen $2 to $5 in most counties, with several counties showing no increase, according to information provided by the state FSA office.

In South Dakota, average CRP rental rates generally have risen in the past year, often by several dollars per acre, although no specific numbers are available, says Jamie White, a spokesman for the South Dakota FSA.

In Minnesota, questions for FSA state officials were referred to Kent Politsch, a FSA spokesman in Washington, who says he can’t discuss the signup until it’s complete.

CRP rental rates in Norman County, in northwestern Minnesota, generally are a dollar or two higher per acre than those offered in the last signup, says Randy Tufton, Norman County FSA executive director.

A lot of expiring land

Roughly a quarter of the 4.4 million acres nationwide set to expire Sept. 30 are in Montana (497,000 acres), North Dakota (387,000), Minnesota (127,000) and South Dakota (125,000 acres), or a total of about 1.1 million acres, according to the FSA web site.

The 2008 farm bill authorizes USDA to maintain CRP enrollment up to 32 million acres.

Currently, there are 31.2 million acres in CRP, FSA says.

The six states with the most land in CRP, according to the FSA.

- Texas, 3.4 million.

- Montana, 2.86 million.

- Kansas, 2.7 million.

- North Dakota, 2.65 million.

- Minnesota, 1.64 million.

- South Dakota, 1.16 million.

Weighing the benefits

FSA says CRP offers are evaluated and ranked though an Environmental Benefits Index, consisting of five benefits of enrolling land. The five are wildlife, water, soil, air and enduring benefits and costs.

The number of acres accepted in the signup will be determined after the Environmental Benefits Index analysis of all offers is complete.

Landowners who want to learn more about the signup should contact their county FSA office or check the FSA web site.