Apply common sense to the Conservation Reserve Program

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Farm Forum

South Dakota is famous for its numerous outdoor recreation opportunities, especially pheasant hunting. Dubbed the “pheasant hunting capitol of the world,” the state attributes much of the success and popularity of upland bird hunting to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP land, along with shelterbelts, crop stubble, and patchwork of farmsteads and pastures offer protection to wildlife, shielding it from South Dakota’s harsh and extreme weather. Unfortunately, South Dakota’s enrolled CRP acreage continues to drop along with our state’s pheasant numbers, leaving hunting enthusiasts and rural economies concerned about how to best maintain South Dakota’s great hunting tradition.

Since 1986, CRP has added up to 1.5 million acres of grassland, trees, and wildlife habitat to South Dakota’s landscape. As a result, hundreds of thousands of acres of highly erodible land and critical wetlands have been protected and several species of wildlife have flourished. Not only does CRP provide an economic alternative to farming marginal land, but CRP’s hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat in South Dakota also enhance the economies of small towns and rural areas by supporting our pheasant and wildlife populations.

CRP acreage in South Dakota has dropped from its high of 1.5 million acres to its current enrollment of under one million acres. Although higher grain, cash rent, and land prices over the past few years have made CRP less attractive for economic reasons, one reason many farmers are turning away from CRP is the questionable CRP management policies coming out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, D.C.

The vegetative cover on CRP grasslands must be removed every five years to improve its habitat and environmental potential, allowing new growth in these areas. Removing this cover is known as mid-contract management. Certain contracts require CRP participants to destroy the residue by baling, stacking, and burning. Burning this vegetative cover, which could instead be used for feed, is difficult to understand and creates safety risks. Additionally, CRP only pays a small percentage of the actual cost of removing and destroying the cover, increasing the cost to farmers.

I recently sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asking that current CRP participants be allowed to utilize the vegetative cover removed under mid-contract management. My letter requested USDA allow CRP participants to use the hay removed by mid-contract management and receive a 25 percent reduction in their annual rental payment, or allow participants to donate the hay to a third party and receive full payment. Making this recommended change could save taxpayers nearly $12 million in South Dakota alone.

CRP holds a significant role in the success of South Dakota’s agriculture and rural economies. I will continue to work with my colleagues in the Senate and at the USDA to promote common-sense policies that save money and make CRP more attractive to South Dakota farmers.