Conservation acres cut as crop prices rise
WORTHINGTON -- According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, an estimated 550,000 acres of Minnesota land will expire from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the next three years.
The federal program, which offers landowners an option to idle marginal lands in a 10-year or 15-year contract, can't afford to keep all of those acres enrolled. Farmers, lured by higher grain prices, can in some cases earn more money by putting the land back into crop production.
CRP contracts accounting for thousands of acres in southwest Minnesota will expire on Sept. 30, and without new farm bill legislation or the promise of a general CRP sign-up, it is uncertain just how much land will remain idle.
Pipestone and Murray counties stand to lose the most conservation acreage, according to Farm Service Agency directors there.
Just in the last five years, Pipestone County has seen a drop from 12,000 CRP acres to 8,000, and director Mark Zinnel doesn't see that trend slowing down.
"We've got about 1,600 acres expected to come out this year," he said. "We've got some producers who've indicated they want to continue (in CRP), but we'll be lucky if we get 500 acres enrolled."
Pipestone County's neighbor to the east, Murray County, has about 2,600 CRP acres set to expire this year.
FSA Director Dave Schreiber said he has no indication yet on just how many of those acres will be re-enrolled in the program. At this time, the county has about 20,000 acres enrolled in CRP.
"We've had a number of acres that have expired and (landowners) did not reenroll those back in CRP, and we had a number of acres people enrolled in CRP and then they bought their way out," Schreiber said.
Last September, Murray County had approximately 600 acres in CRP contracts expire. Only 254 acres were re-enrolled.
"That is 300 and some acres that will be farmed," he added. "That has been the trend the past few years."
The story is a bit different in Rock and Nobles counties, where there are significantly fewer acres enrolled in CRP.
In Rock County, FSA program technician Julie Reitsma said there are just 403 acres of conservation land set to expire on Sept. 30. Most of those acres are listed under the continuous CRP signup, which means landowners can automatically re-enroll their marginal lands. Just 45 acres are set to expire this year from Rock County's general sign-up.
"We're not a very big county for CRP," Reitsma said. "A lot of (the acres) going back in are your windbreaks, shelterbelts and waterways."
In the last five years, she said there have been about 200 acres of land in CRP contracts that have expired and gone back into crop production. To date, the county has 2,736 acres enrolled in the federal program.
In Nobles County, FSA director Ron McCarvel said CRP contracts totaling less than 100 acres are slated to expire on Sept. 30.
"The bulk of our acres are in continuous practices -- they're environmentally sensitive acres," McCarvel said. "The average contract is probably 10 to 12 acres tops."
Many of the CRP contracts in Nobles County are enrolled in the continuous CRP sign-up, which encompasses long-term conservation practices such as filter strips, waterways, restored wetlands and shelterbelts.
Cottonwood County FSA Director Linda Stuckenbroker said there are nearly 2,000 of 14,250 CRP acres in the county set to expire this year, but she anticipates much of that land will remain in conservation practices.
"We contacted all of those landowners that have CRP expiring on Sept. 30, and we're right around 95 or 98 percent of people who want to re-enroll," she said. "A lot of the land that's re-enrolled, there's a reason -- it's pretty marginal land. We really haven't seen a lot of decline in CRP land, or people buying it out (of the program) or letting it expire."
In Jackson County, FSA director Larry Stuckenbroker said "a fair amount" -- more than 1,300 of the county's 9,369 CRP acres -- are slated to expire this year.
"Up until now we've seen a fairly good balance -- we lose some contracts and pick up others," he said. "What we've noticed so far is there are some producers who will allow their contracts to expire without re-enrolling them."
Larry Stuckenbroker said it isn't just CRP lands that are being plowed up for row crop production.
"There's a lot of abandoned building sites that have been pushed down and people are farming now," he said. "Guys are now trying to till pasture land -- that could cause us to go (backwards). Those could be poor soils that maybe are prone to erosion."
McCarvel is also seeing more abandoned farm sites being pushed down and the trees cleared for crop production in Nobles County.
Losing conservation lands?
When the Conservation Reserve Program was introduced in 1986, Schreiber said it wasn't uncommon for some producers to enroll 100-acre fields.
"Since those beginning signups, the trend has been going to smaller acres -- more environmentally sensitive acres," he said. "With the farm economy the way it is, those big acres, they really don't want to see them in conservation programs."
In the first years of the program, Schreiber said farmers could enroll any land that was considered highly erodible, including areas of lighter soil and hilltops.
"Now, the push really is more for filter strips and wetlands -- that kind of land is what they're really looking for," he added.
Practices that prove an environmental benefit, such as filter strips and wetlands, fall under the continuous CRP signup, meaning that when the 10- or 15-year contract expires, the landowner can automatically re-enroll. The general signup, which focuses more on erodible land, tends to include larger tracts. With the general signup, there's no guarantee a producer who had land in CRP will qualify the next time a contract expires.
McCarvel said the issue this year is whether or not there will be a general CRP signup. If there isn't, all of the general signup acres expiring will likely end up being farmed again. If there is a general signup, he said there still will be lands not eligible for the program.
"Knowing the current budget, I don't know if there's going to be another signup this year," McCarvel said. "We had a signup every other year for the last seven or eight years. It kind of follows the number of acres coming out in general nationwide."
"We're finding a lot of the producers that had big blocks of land aren't qualifying for the highly sensitive land," added Linda Stuckenbroker. "Unless we get a general signup, some of that just isn't going to qualify and that's sad. We're really really hoping that Congress might take a look at that and say we do need a signup for those general areas."
In Jackson County, Larry Stuckenbroker is also concerned. He said if the lands don't qualify, producers will just start farming them again.
"With the prices like they are, you don't need (huge) yields to make a profit on the land," he said. "It's kind of a sign of the times. With higher commodity prices, they're going to start looking at that as an alternative."
Some already have in Murray County, where Schreiber said the $200-per-acre CRP payment just doesn't compete with $300-per-acre cash rent.
In Pipestone County, it's the same thing. Zinnel said CRP offers about $180 per acre, whereas farmers can get $250 per acre in rental payments.
"That kind of has a big impact if the land will continue on in CRP," Zinnel said.
"The government is broke -- they don't have any money," Schreiber said. In 2011, as a result of staffing cuts, FSA directors had to go out and do field work. In Pipestone County, Zinnel said there won't even be mailing out notices to landowners about re-enrollment in CRP -- it was a budget cut.
"Normally we would be in contact with the landowners to come in and take a look at the program, but we're restricted on sending out any notices to producers," said Zinnel. "The word needs to get out to producers to get their information."
Farming practices have changed considerably since the mid-1980s when the Conservation Reserve Program was introduced. Today's landowners are more responsible in how they manage the land.
"Back when CRP started ... we had a lot of farmers that didn't apply a lot of good conservation practices," Schreiber said.
Now, most farmers practice some sort of conservation tillage method.
"Farmers are doing a lot better job now than they did 20 years ago," Schreiber added.
It isn't just farmers who are doing a better job. The CRP program has also gone through change.
In Nobles County, McCarvel said filter strips were always put in at the minimum requirements, from 66 feet to 100 feet -- a measure based on the slope of the land.
"Because our land is fairly flat, we don't have the wider filter strips, but some counties have 300-foot filter strips," McCarvel said. "They'll be back to 100 to 120 feet -- Jackson County has some of that."
Despite some of the concerns about the CRP program, most directors believe it will continue in some form of what it first was.
"I think CRP is probably going to remain intact -- probably toned down a bit," said Zinnel. "It's still a very viable and worthwhile conservation program."
Readers may reach Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer at 376-7330.