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Published July 30, 2014, 10:08 AM

CRP reductions to continue

The loss of more than half of the acres of land in a popular conservation program in North Dakota has triggered what Eric Lindstrom, government affairs representative for Ducks Unlimited in North Dakota, referred to as “CRP loss hangover.”

By: Keith Norman , Forum News Service

The loss of more than half of the acres of land in a popular conservation program in North Dakota has triggered what Eric Lindstrom, government affairs representative for Ducks Unlimited in North Dakota, referred to as “CRP loss hangover.”

Conservation Reserve Program is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that pays farmers to allow land to go to grass rather than crops. The program removes acres from production, which reduces crop supply in an effort to improve commodity prices. The land enrolled in the program also serves as habitat to a wide variety of wildlife.

That decline in acres in the program is likely to continue for the next four years, according to Aaron Krauter, state executive director for the North Dakota Farm Service Agency.

“The trend is as contracts expire, landowners look at the production side,” Krauter says. “With high commodity prices, farmers are looking for someone to crop it or to farm it themselves.”

CRP peaked in 2007 in North Dakota at about 3.4 million acres. In 2014, there are less than 1.6 million acres in CRP in the state, according to Krauter. There is no general enrollment in CRP scheduled for this year.

Lindstrom says grassland habitat loss is the greatest in more than 80 years.

“CRP has been renowned as the flagship of land conservation programs,” he says. “With the loss of almost 2 million acres, we’re losing grassland at a rate not seen since the Dust Bowl.”

The program is likely to take another hit in 2015. Krauter says USDA will offer farmers an early out from CRP contracts without penalty.

“Commodity prices at that time will determine how many will exit the program,” he says.

Krauter says the goal is to reduce the CRP program nationally to 24 million acres from its current 25 million acres by 2018 when the current farm bill ends. There is no specific goal for CRP in North Dakota.

The reduction in acres is reducing wildlife habitat and hunter access, says Colin Penner, private lands biologist and geographic information specialist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

“The decline in CRP is reducing PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen) lands,” Penner says. “A lot of farmers put land into both programs.”

The PLOTS program is operated through North Dakota Game and Fish and pays landowners to allow sportsmen access to their land. This year it includes about 700,000 acres. The program peaked at more than 1 million acres in 2007.

“The PLOTS program is critical, but it buys access to the land, not habitat that CRP created,” Lindstrom says. “There is no substitute for habitat, and it’s an expensive endeavor.”

Lindstrom says the federal CRP program at its peak cost more than $100 million each year in North Dakota. In a 10-year period, USDA invested more than $1 billion in the state through CRP.

“Even though CRP has been a popular program, we understand with high commodity prices we’ll see land go back into production. We need to find ways to make the program more attractive to producers,” he says.

One part of the program that is signing up new acres is the Conservation Reserve Program Duck Nesting Habitat Priority Enrollment Zone. The zone includes the Prairie Pothole region, which includes most of North Dakota between the Red River Valley and the Missouri River. Krauter says the program allows farmers to sign up small parcels, sometimes as small as two or three acres, which offer excellent wildlife habitat.

Lindstrom says smaller parcels are one way to make the program more attractive to farmers.

“There is always some marginal land on every operation,” he says. “We need to ways we can do (enroll) tracts of 40 or 80 acres of quality habitat.”

Allowing farmers to hay or graze the CRP land after the nesting period could also make the program more attractive.

Krauter says CRP is not ending, but will likely continue to see reductions.

“There are landowners that are conservation and sportsmen minded,” he says. “North Dakota has always been a strong state for CRP, but we won’t see a high like 2007 again.”

Lindstrom says North Dakota does have some options in maintaining wildlife habitat and hunting access.

“We’re at a critical crossroads in the state,” he says. “A robust CRP program costs more than $100 million per year. North Dakota is in a unique position with oil revenues to embark on its own program rather than a federal one-size-fits all program. We could make it more attractive to producer and keep the grass right side up.”

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