Farm Horizons, February 1999

CRP: many programs have continuous sign-up

By Andrea Vargo

Would you like to get paid over $100 per acre for land you can't plow? Many property owners in the Clearwater River watershed are eligible for these filter strip payments and don't even know it, said Deron Ruesch.

Ruesch works for the United States Department of Agriculture and for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, as the district conservationist.

His job includes work for the federal farm program and also with wetlands and soil conservation.

Many of the programs at the Soil and Water Conservation District, like the filter strips, provide opportunities for continuous sign-up, said Ruesch.

Some people think the big general sign-up that was closed in December is the only one in which they can participate.

But, said Ruesch, there are continuous sign-up programs through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Minnesota Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) or Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP).

Over a dozen of these programs are offered, including those for grass waterways, shallow water areas for wildlife, contour grass strips, windbreaks and shelterbelts, and wetland restoration.

Background for CRP

In its infancy, the Conservation Reserve Program was known as the Soil Bank Act of 1956.

Dust bowl years of the 1930s encouraged Congress to try and stop the erosion of cropland and head off the overproduction of major crops.

The cost of converting cropland to protective vegetative cover was shared by the United States Department of Agriculture.

For 10 years, the Soil Bank Program diverted 28.7 million acres to conservation practices on 306,000 farms.

This program was followed by two similar programs, but the prices of farm commodities rose in the 1970s and farmers responded by planting marginal land, range, and pasture lands.

As a result of overproduction, farm income fell to its lowest level since the 1930s.

Ruesch stated, "The program (CRP) was started to help control erosion on soils. In addition, a lot of farms experienced foreclosure in the 80s.

"Markets were low, and indirectly this was thought to help the markets."

Low farm prices and erosion may have triggered the CRP, but public concern began to grow over the damage caused by agriculture erosion and water runoff carrying nutrients and chemicals into waterways.

Studies by the USDA showed three billion tons of soil was lost every year, due to erosion.

Wildlife was affected because of the destruction of habitat in the rush to turn pastures into cropland.

The Food Security Act of 1985 actually established the CRP, which, like its predecessors, was a voluntary long-term cropland retirement program.

Ruesch said, "In the beginning, these programs were meant to reduce erosion and other benefits were secondary.

"Now, the primary focus is on wildlife, environmental improvement, and water quality."

Land must now meet more stringent standards than before.

But the water quality benefits for filter strips and riparian buffers next to water bodies have earned property owners a bonus incentive payment equal to 20 percent of the annual rental rate to encourage participation of landowners.

Wright County

Wright County had a lower sign up with the last opportunity, said Ruesch.

"Some counties in the northwestern part of the state had almost 1,000 people come in," Ruesch said.

It isn't always that easy to get in. The 13th sign up in 1997 had 150 property owners signed up, but only 33 were accepted.

The sign-up that ended in December brought in 40 farmers to sign up a total of 804 acres.

In the county, there are now 327 contracts for a total of 5,886.2 acres in CRP.

The most recent sign-up is not included in those figures, though farmers will know fairly soon if their land was accepted into the program, he said.

The selection process is fairly complicated, Ruesch said. Sign-ups now are highly competitive.

"Your bids are competing against the whole country, not just your own county," he said.

Benefits of CRP

Planting of grasses and trees really cuts loss of soil and improves water quality and crop production, said Ruesch.

Wind and water erosion is down with the advent of these conservation programs, he said.

In Minnesota, the estimate is that 17 tons of soil per acre per year are saved with erosion control from grasses planted.

That adds up to an annual total of 26,476,000 tons of soil saved.

With erosion control in place, less than a ton of soil per year is lost per acre. A tolerable level is 3-5 tons lost per acre, he said.

The environmental groups, like Pheasants Forever, wanted better cover for wildlife.

From general erosion control, beneficial wildlife habitat, and water quality, there are enduring benefits. If a brome grass is planted, it is easy to plow up, he said. If the more expensive native grasses are planted, there is a greater reluctance to turn it under. The native grasses are beautiful and hold a benefit for wildlife in their seeds and cover. You create a feeling that is harder to destroy.

"Some people get sick of their land being rented and run down by a farmer who doesn't have respect for the land," he said.

That disregard for the soils can be the cause for erosion and put that dirt right into a waterway.

In Wright County, 75 percent of the county is in the Crow River drainage area.

"If the soil is not properly planted with the grassy waterways and filter strips needed for erosion control, soil from that farm can end up in the Crow River. I mean, just look at the river," he said.

Ruesch commented, "There is a personal satisfaction in what I do. Someone will say 'Oh, Deron, you should see all the deer and pheasants.'

"Property owners enjoy watching their marginal cropland evolve to what was originally here."

"I'm personally concerned about the soils and the water quality. I drink the water, too," he said.

Ruesch went on, "What I do is aimed toward helping the farmer protect his land. Everyone benefits from CRP, even the people in the metro areas who never see where their water and food come from."

Native grasses

Ruesch is partial to planting native grasses on the land in order to restore as much of it as possible to its original state.

He recalled a trip he made last winter. He passed a field of native grasses in a CRP field and spoke of a sight that made all his work worthwhile.

He said, ". . . as I was driving back from South Dakota, we saw about 200 pheasants coming out of a 30-acre field of native grass.

"We can't snap our fingers and have the native grasses 3-5 feet tall in a year, but they will get there soon.

"The stiffer grasses stand up to the winter snow and winds to provide wildlife cover, and there are millions of seeds for feed."

Watching wildlife and having clean water to drink are some of the good things in life, and Ruesch is dedicated to being a part of the process that provides those things.

For more information, call 612-682-1933 in Wright County or 320-864-5176 in McLeod County. Elsewhere, contact your county Soil and Water Conservation District office.

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