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Conservation program draws steady interest

HILLS -- In the nine months since a new sign-up period for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program began, more than 130 landowners have applied to enroll marginal lands or newly required buffers into the permanent set-aside program.

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Rock County Land Management engineering technician Arlyn Gehrke (left) met with Howard, Greg and Leroy Van Wyhe of Van Wyhe Farms. The Van Wyhes anticipate the land they enrolled in the Minnesota Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program will expand their hunting opportunities in Rock County. (Special to The Globe)
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HILLS - In the nine months since a new sign-up period for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program began, more than 130 landowners have applied to enroll marginal lands or newly required buffers into the permanent set-aside program.

Funded with a $350 million commitment from the federal government and $150 million in state dollars, CREP is an option for farmers in 54 Minnesota counties, including the entire southwest corner of the state, for eligible projects include buffering streams, restoring wetlands or protecting drinking water supplies. The program offers an annual payment to landowners for 15 years through the federally funded Conservation Reserve Program - along with a one-time state-funded payment from Reinvest In Minnesota in exchange for a perpetual conservation easement.

The latest CREP sign-up will remain open for five years or until funds are depleted.

Earlier this month, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources announced more than $34 million has already been spent to permanently idle 4,000 acres of land in the state.

In Rock County, the program has caught the eyes of several landowners, according to Arlyn Gehrke, SWCD engineering technician in the Rock County Land Management Office. So far, four parcels have been accepted into CREP, with another four applications in various stages of completion. If all of the applications are approved, more than 80 acres of land will be taken out of production, Gehrke said. The enrollment process takes about six to eight months - much of that time entails waiting on state paperwork.

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“Compared to other CREP signups, we’ve had a lot more interest this go-around,” Gehrke said Tuesday, noting higher land values in Rock County as a leading reason for signup success. CREP payments are based on 90 percent of the average farmland value, making payouts variable not only by county, but also by township.

While it may be a good deal for landowners in Rock County, Nobles County Soil and Water Conservation District Administrator John Shea said he’s heard of little interest in CREP. Here, the payments aren’t quite as appealing as they are in Rock County.

“Nobles County has been searching for eligible parcels with willing landowners,” said Shea, adding that 35 landowners have been contacted thus far with little success.

“The prices are based on township values and don’t always reflect what a farmer might be able to get on an auction,” Shea reasoned for the lack of CREP signups locally.

The Van Wyhe brothers - Howard, Leroy and Greg -  of rural Hills were among the first to sign up for CREP when the program reopened last year. With their application approved, they’re ready to seed nearly 13 acres of land into grass cover this spring along a drainage ditch that feeds into Mud Creek.

Leroy Van Wyhe said the statewide buffer law fueled their interest in CREP.

“We needed to put a buffer on each side of the ditch,” he said. Enrollment in CREP will include the seeding and the annual payments for 15 years - a good deal for landowners like the Van Wyhes, who also enjoy the wildlife benefits.

“Me and my brothers like to hunt - that was another reason to go ahead and do it,” Leroy said. “The buffer is a good idea; it helps take the nitrates out of the water.”

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Gehrke said most of the applicants in Rock County are interested in enrolling their required buffers into CREP, especially with funding capped on CRP.

“They’re seeing that it’s marginal ground, it might not be the most productive piece,” he said. “Other (acres being enrolled) are small fields, and landowners are having a hard time finding renters because of their larger equipment.”

The Board of Water and Soil Resources said the top three reasons landowners are enrolling in CREP are to meet buffer requirements, to stop battling wet ground or to build a legacy.

“It’s going to accomplish a lot as part of the conservation goals for Minnesota,” said David Rickert, assistant easement section manager for BWSR. “These are areas that are playing an important part for water quality and wildlife habitat.”

 

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The federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is offered to landowners in 54 Minnesota counties. (Special to The Globe)

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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