Confusion swirls around CRP land

By Shannon Marvel
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What sounded like good news to farmers during the drought comes with a catch that has led to confusion in Brown County.

Conservation Reserve Program acres available for emergency haying or grazing do not include environmentally sensitive land.

That means the majority of the 66,866 CRP acres in Brown County are off limits, said Doug Fjeldheim, vice chairman of the Brown County Commission.

And that’s news to some Brown County farmers who have already lined up CRP acres to hay only to be told by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency office that the land does not qualify for emergency haying and grazing.

“Somebody needs to follow up. Yes, it’s been released, but it’s only the high-erodible (land),” Fjeldheim said. “People are kind of deceived by how the news is saying CRP is being released. It’s not really the way it works.”

CRP, a land conservation program administered by the Farm Service Agency, pays enrolled farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production. Instead, they plant species that will improve the land’s quality.

The federal government last month reversed an earlier decision and has now allowed emergency haying of CRP acres in South Dakota counties that are experiencing drought. The farmers can then choose to donate the hay to cattle and other producers in approved drought-stricken counties. Before that change by USDA, farmers believed they would have to destroy their usable hay if they cut their CRP acres.

Brown County resident Butch Downing was under the assumption that he’d be able to hay CRP acres, but was told by the Farm Service Agency office they do not qualify for emergency haying and grazing.

“What had happened is (U.S. Sen. John) Thune, was bragging about how they opened up the counties for CRP haying, and a lot of Brown County doesn’t qualify. I believe that it’s how their contracts are written,” Downing said.

CRP acres in wetlands, buffers and other management programs have not been released for emergency haying. In addition, CRP acres in life easements or within 120 feet of a stream or other permanent body of water have not been released, according to information distributed by the USDA.

The best way to know for certain whether CRP acres have been released for haying or grazing is to call the local Farm Service Agency office, according to Ron Russell, District 6 director for Farm Service Agency in South Dakota.

“I had two CRP areas lined up and neither of them qualified. I know two people in West River who have horses who need hay. I did call Thune’s office, and they’ve been getting an earful about this,” Downing said.

“One of my concerns is it was on the news where it said all of CRP is open now for grazing and haying, then it said contact the FSA office for more information,” he said. “I wonder how many people aren’t going to contact the office and start cutting, then they’re going to get fined, so I think that’s why the word needs to get out. You best be checking your contract.”

In his June 30 column, Thune wrote that “no one will be forced to destroy useable hay that’s removed from CRP-enrolled land. (The USDA decision) also means every single county in South Dakota will be immediately opened to grazing on CRP-enrolled land subject to mid-contract management and will be opened to emergency haying on Aug. 1.

“All of South Dakota and North Dakota, two-thirds of Montana, half of Wyoming and Nebraska, and portions of Iowa and Minnesota are now available for emergency grazing on certain CRP land.”

Fjeldheim has been fielding many questions from locals who feel misled, believing that all CRP land has been released for emergency haying and grazing.

According to Thune spokesman Ryan Wrasse, the Republican senator’s request was that all CRP acres — including those designated as environmentally sensitive — be approved for emergency haying and grazing by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Wrasse said Thune is still working with USDA to have environmentally sensitive land released for haying and grazing. A considerable number of CRP acres in the Aberdeen area can’t be cut or grazed as things stand, Wrasse acknowledged in an email.

Other CRP acres have been available for emergency grazing since June 23. Emergency haying of those acres can begin Sunday.

In a telephone interview Friday, Brad Karmen, acting deputy administrator for farm programs for Farm Service Agency, confirmed that “safe” — not environmentally sensitive — acres have been released for emergency haying or grazing.

“Most of the safe acres should be eligible for emergency haying and grazing. The grasses were eligible,” Karmen said.

“What’s not eligible is the more sensitive lands — wetlands and nesting habitat are currently not eligible for haying and grazing due to the sensitive nature of the land. Thune did send a letter to the secretary asking for additional lands to be released. I don’t know what the secretary is going to do, but he does understand the drought.

“But again, we’ll have to wait to see what the secretary decides.”

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More info

For more information on Farm Service Agency’s emergency haying and grazing regulations for Conservation Reserve Program acres, or to learn about other drought-assistance options, contact your local Farm Service Agency office or visit fsa.usda.gov online.

The Brown County FSA office is at 605-226-3360.