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Financial alternatives in conservation

The unseasonably dry summer of 2005 and increased prices for fuel, fertilizer and other inputs, have row crop farmers in financial straits in many areas of the Delta, despite last year’s record harvests.

High fuel costs after last year’s hurricanes, drought conditions and international pressures on crop prices have many Arkansas farmers worried they will not be able to stay in business another year. They are looking for other ways to improve the return on their agricultural operations.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel for many farmers who struggle with farming marginal croplands: enrolling these acres into the USDA’s Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (Continuous CRP). Thousands of acres of croplands across the Delta are marginally profitable because they are drought-prone or flood-prone, produce low yields, can’t be irrigated, or are hard to farm for other reasons.

The timing could not be better for farmers to investigate this financial incentive program that pays yearly rental payments for up to 15 years and, under specific conservation practices, a one-time per acre land payment.

Placing these acres into conservation practices could increase whole farm profitability and improve the financial bottom line for many farmers. Continuous CRP offers an alternative to farming acres showing frequent losses, and it diversifies overall operations while improving income.

The primary eligibility requirement for Continuous CRP is the cropland must have a cropping history four out of six years, from 1996 to 2001.

The good news about Continuous CRP is row crop farmers can sign up any day, Monday through Friday, at their Farm Service Agency county offices and apply for up to seven major conservation practices offering significant financial assistance.

Farmers do not have to compete to be accepted in the program as required under most other USDA conservation programs. Every row crop farmer in Arkansas with cropland meeting the required cropping history qualifies for one or more of the Continuous CRP practices already.

In Arkansas, yearly rental payments may range from $20 to over $100 per acre, depending on the specific county, the soil on the cropland, and the conservation practice selected. Each FSA county office can provide specific soil rental rates to farmers for their lands along with the rates after any special incentives are added.

Everybody wins with conservation practices available in Continuous CRP — farmers, wildlife populations, the environment and society as a whole. And the practices are a viable alternative to farming marginal lands.

The seven conservation practices listed below provide premium habitat for species such as migratory waterfowl, rabbits, quail, deer, turkey, numerous shorebirds, grassland songbirds and other non-game wildlife.

Equally important, they provide the needed incentives to assist farmers in retiring problematic croplands. Farmers can also realize additional income through wildlife-related leases after the habitat has been established.

Continuous CRP Conservation practices available to help row crop farmers include:

CP9: Shallow Water Areas for Wildlife: Cropland suitable for a low levee with water control structures that will back up rainfall on up to 10 acres of cropland can qualify for 10-year contracts with rental payments.

Up to 10 acres per FSA tract may be enrolled.

A 50 percent cost-share plus a Practice Incentive Payment of 40 percent, which in most cases equals a 90 percent cost-share, is offered to develop problem areas in a cropland field into habitat for ducks, teal, shorebirds and other wildlife.

CP21 Filter Strips: Cropland next to perennial or seasonal streams can be used to buffer cropland edges for filtering runoff. They can range from 20 feet to 120 feet.

This practice offers up to 15-year rental payments plus a 20 percent incentive added to the county soil rental rate, a 50 percent cost-share and a 40 percent Practice Incentive Payment — which can equal a 90 percent cost-share — and a one-time Signing Incentive Payment up to $150 per acre paid within 30 days after the contract is approved by the county FSA committee.

It’s critical to ask for wildlife-beneficial plantings to realize premium wildlife habitat under this practice.

CP22 Riparian Forest Buffers: Cropland next to perennial and seasonal streams and rivers and first order drainage ditches can qualify if it is lacking in adequate tree cover. Buffers can be from 35 feet up to 180 feet and, under certain conditions, much wider — up to the high-water mark where sediment deposits are found after floods.

Incentives include 15-year soil rental payments, a 20 percent incentive added to the county soil rental rate, a 50 percent cost-share, a 40 percent Practice Incentive Payment, and a Signing Incentive Payment up to $150 per acre paid within 30 days after the contract is approved by the county FSA committee.

CP23 Wetland Restoration: Cropland in the 100-year floodplain (most land in the Delta) that contains 51 percent hydric soils qualifies. A 3-1 ratio of buffer-to-wetlands may be included in the contract. This practice receives up to 15-year rental payments, 50 percent cost-share, and an added 25 percent incentive of practice cost to restore hydrology, including any dirt work and tree planting.

Whole crop fields may be enrolled.

CP23A Wetland Restoration, Non-floodplain: Receives the same incentives as CP23 above, but does not have to be in the100-year floodplain or have the 51 percent hydric soils. Whole crop fields maybe enrolled.

CP31 Bottomland Timber Establishment on Wetlands: Cropland has to be in the 100-year floodplain (most land in the Delta). Practice receives up to 15-year rental payments and 50 percent cost-share for practice establishment. Whole crop fields may be enrolled.

CP33 Wildlife Habitat for Upland Birds All cropland edges (borders) qualify for 10-year contracts. Native grass buffers may be established from 30 to 120 feet in width.

The owner receives 10-year rental payments, a 50 percent cost-share plus a 40 percent Practice Incentive Payment, which in most cases equals a 90 percent cost-share to establish the native grasses.

The owner also receives a Signing Incentive Payment of $100 per acre as a one-time payment normally paid within 30 days after the contract is approved by the county FSA committee.

All of the above practices also pay $5 to $10 per acre for maintenance, depending on the specific conservation practice.

Continuous CRP also offers landowners with tenant farmers the opportunity to retire those marginally profitable croplands and receive higher returns on the acres while continuing to farm the highly productive acres. In many cases, the tenant farmer is more than happy to stop farming the low-yielding croplands.

Farmers are encouraged to take the Continuous CRP list in this article to their FSA offices when requesting information or enrollment.

For additional information contact your county Farm Service Agency or Natural Resources Conservation Service office, or David Long, private lands coordinator with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission toll-free at (877) 972-5438.

David Long is an agricultural liaison with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.

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