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CRP input dominated by wildlife enthusiasts

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- A crowd dominated by wildlife and hunting enthusiasts testified Sept. 21 at a U.S. Department of Agriculture listening session that will help guide policies on the Conservation Reserve Program.

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- A crowd dominated by wildlife and hunting enthusiasts testified Sept. 21 at a U.S. Department of Agriculture listening session that will help guide policies on the Conservation Reserve Program.

It was one of nine regional meetings across the country. About 80 people were in attendance at the Moorhead, Minn., meeting. The attendees came from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota -- almost none from production agriculture.

Essentially, the government's question is simple -- whether to implement "Alternative 1" policy, which caps the CRP at 32 million acres, or "Alternative 2" which would cut acreage to 24 million acres. The agency is working on an Environmental Impact Statement, after accepting comments through Oct. 19.

Not unexpectedly, wildlife groups and hunters in the audience all spoke in favor of the 32 million-acre option, as an "interim" or "short-term" step toward increasing the CRP to 40 million or even 45 million acres. Only a few pro-agriculture speakers were present, and none from agriculture departments from the three states.

The CRP, created in the 1985 farm bill, initially was designed to protect highly erodible land in multiyear contracts, paying farmers an annual rent to put the land in permanent grass or trees and cost-sharing certain conservation practices. Another goal was cutting acreage of surplus grains crops.

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In subsequent multiyear farm bills, the CRP was shifted more heavily toward conservation goals, fueled primarily by wildlife and hunting interests.

Making their appeals

Bruce Qvammen of West Fargo, N.D., who describes himself as a real estate developer who co-owns recreational property near Regent, N.D., says he's being forced to pull 1,000 acres out of CRP in 2010 and another 500 acres in 2011. He says southwest North Dakota CRP contract-holders have been "abandoned by USDA" because contract extensions are based on what the land was 15 to 18 years ago -- not the improvements for trees and wetland improvements.

"It's all going back to what it was when it was put in," he says.

He says he hays 20 percent of the property annually and is inter-seeded when it's hayed. He says ongoing CRP programs should be managed haying, and allow block planting of trees, instead of three- and four-row plantings of trees that are "basically bird killers."

James Dick, a retired farmer from Englevale, N.D., says he is in favor of the CRP because "we haven't had dust in the air since this program has been installed." He says any changes should address keeping a robust cover and controlling noxious weeds.

Steve Stensgard, a "farm bill biologist" with Pheasants Forever in Jamestown, N.D., is part of a partnership between the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Stensgard says he thinks the biggest problems farmers have with CRP is contract management, harvesting-grazing issues and rental payments. He says the government should return to allowing farmers to hay or graze land every third year.

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Stensgard suggests returning to the concept of general signups. Aaron Larsen, his counterpart in Fergus Falls, Minn., says that by putting the cap on CRP acres, "USDA would be responsible for putting 8 million acres of highly erodible land back into production."

Tom Kirschenmann, South Dakota Game Fish and Parks commissioner, says rental rates for CRP average $27 to $29 per acre throughout the state, so "any adjustments to that are encouraging." He calls the 24 million-acre option "unacceptable" and says CRP should be restored to 40 million acres.

Dick Monson, who farms near Valley City, N.D., says CRP should tie in with a water retention policy.

"Our state hasn't got a coherent water policy," he says.

Instead of treating pottable water as a valuable natural resource, it's a situation that, "When we've got too much, we want to dump it on somebody else; when we don't have enough, we sway from dumping on others when there is an excess of water or, if we don't have enough, we want somebody else to pay for it.

James Schreiner of Moorhead says his quarter-section of CRP is "holding back some of that water" that threatens Fargo-Moorhead during floods on the Red River.

"We've got farmers out there who are taking their grain crops off and now are in there with scrapers, with more equipment than the county's got, bigger equipment than the state has got, and they're going to make damn sure there's not a quart of water standing on their land next spring."

Steve Strege of Fargo, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association, spoke against CRP expansion.

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"I'm here to make sure it isn't unanimous," Strege says.

Speaking for sister organizations in South Dakota and Minnesota, Strege says that too much CRP is a death knell for elevators and other ag input providers. One of the alternatives allows increasing county limits from the current 25 percent cap to as much as 50 percent, with "county government approval." He says parts of some counties already are that high, and that's equivalent of "shutting down the food factory."

Strege says North Dakota State University studies in the past have determined that hunting and recreational activity from CRP replaces only about 30 percent of the value provided by agriculture on the same land.

To add a comment on the CRP changes, people can go to http://public.geo-marine.com .

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