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Two components: CRP plans can benefit Delta farmers

With recent downpours of rain, Arkansas Delta farmers are wondering if they will again lose crops on flooded land. In the future, such concerns may be alleviated: in the 2002 farm bill are many new and improved conservation program opportunities for farmers to consider for risky, flood-prone croplands.

The programs include the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

In 2002, the WRP program was expanded to make available an additional 1.3 million acres nationwide. Currently, Arkansas farmers have enrolled over 100,000 acres in the program — much of it flood-prone. With the increased acreage cap, another 100,000 acres or more could be enrolled over the next five or six years.

The program offers several options. Among them are:

  • Permanent easements. These pay the appraised agricultural value up to $700 per acre and 100 percent of the cost to restore the cropland to a wetlands state.
  • 30-year easements. These pay 75 percent of the appraised value and 75 percent of restoration cost.
  • 10-year agreements. These pay only 75 percent of the restoration cost with no land payment.

Regardless of which option is chosen, farmers continue to own the land and can use the new wetlands to provide a place for family and friends to hunt or enjoy the outdoors. But the land may also be leased out for duck hunting to generate additional income.

The CRP is yet another conservation program that offers some exciting new opportunities now and others soon to be announced. The program pays per-acre, per-year rental payments for up to 15 years along with cost-share assistance and other incentives.

There are two components of the CRP. First is the “regular” CRP where enrollment (and competition between those wanting to be involved) is allowed during announced sign-up periods.

The second component is the “continuous” CRP. Using this program, farmers may sign up at any time and do not have to compete to be accepted.

The big opportunity currently available to Delta farmers is in the “CRP Conservation Priority Area” that covers 11 counties (Arkansas, Ashley, Chicot, Desha, Drew, Lincoln, Lonoke, Jefferson, Pulaski, Prairie, and White). To qualify, cropland in those counties must have met cropping history standards in four out of six years between 1996 and 2001.

The cropland does not have to be highly erodible as is the case in much of the CRP. Any cropland with a proper cropping history qualifies to compete in the program funding and farmers in those counties receive extra ranking points to help them compete.

To position themselves as favorably as possible, there are two practices farmers should sign up for in the Conservation Priority Area: CP2 Native Grasses and CP3A Hardwoods. These provide 30 to 60 extra points in the CRP ranking.

In addition, farmers competing in the regular CRP sign-up should know there are some special tips they can take advantage of. Land is ranked according to a set of environmental factors.

  • By selecting the best wildlife cover under the N1a factor entitled “Wildlife Habitat Cover” a producer can receive an additional 50 points.
  • Two additional ranking factors award extra points for the practice entitled CP3A. Hardwood trees can produce 50 points under N4- Enduring Benefits, and 10 points under N5d-Air Quality. Farmers have other ranking options, but selecting these provides the most points to better compete for funding.

The best news for Arkansas farmers with flood-prone land comes via the “continuous” program that will be adding two new practices. One practice entitled “CP23 Wetland Restoration” will be available on farmed wetlands and prior converted wetlands at a rate of 6 acres of prior-converted wetlands enrolled with every 1 acre of farmed wetlands.

Another practice doesn't have a CP number yet but will be a bottomland hardwood tree planting practice that also will be eligible on croplands. We still don't know all the details of the practice requirements. However, look for many acres of flood prone lands to be eligible for this conservation practice too.

In addition to helping farmers, these practices create premium wildlife habitat for species such as ducks and other waterfowl, deer, turkey, bear, rabbits, squirrels, and a host of declining non-game species. It's tremendous.

Plus, a long available practice in the continuous CRP that many Arkansas farmers are discovering is the practice entitled “CP22 Riparian Forest Buffers.” This practice is applicable to rivers, streams, creeks, and first order drainage ditches lacking protective tree cover along each side of the water body. (First order means that the drainage ditch runs directly into a water body rather than into another ditch.) Cropland and pastureland both qualify for this practice.

The width can go up to 180 feet without any additional documentation. However, in most cases, much more land will qualify when out-of-bank water flow shows evidence of scour erosion, debris deposits, or sediment deposition. In other words, if you find those trashy water-lines after the water goes down where sediment and/or debris is deposited on a crop field or pasture, FSA can take in all land up to these high-water marks. This allows much more of the flood-prone areas to be enrolled.

This is a really good practice to retire cropland immediately around rivers and streams. And, as the practice is in the continuous CRP, farmers may sign up at any time.

Farmers who qualify for CP22 receive some pretty substantial incentives and supplemental income in the form of rental payments: up to 15 years a 20 percent incentive payment is added to the rental payment, up to $150 per acre up-front signing incentive payment along with a 50 percent cost-share plus a 40 percent practice incentive payment (in essence a 90 percent cost-share for tree and grass establishment).

Also, both sides of a stream or river can be treated.

A new and exciting change to the continuous CRP for CP22 allows additional lands considered “infeasible to farm” to be included in the contract if more than 50 percent of the field is enrolled. For example, a farmer with 46 acres of an 80-acre field along a half-mile of the river qualifies for CP22. Since the producer enrolled more than 50 percent of the field, an additional 25 percent can be enrolled. That equals 11.5 acres for a total of 57.5 acres using the “infeasible to farm” criteria.

This change has been something farmers have requested in the past to square off fields and be able to place most of those acres left in a field into the program.

Everybody wins with these conservation programs — farmers, wildlife populations, and the environment. And these programs provide a very viable means for farmers to receive financial assistance in retiring flood prone croplands.

The programs target those marginally productive croplands that can provide some outstanding wildlife habitat much needed in the Delta region of the state. But most importantly, they provide the needed incentives to assist farmers to retire problem lands.

David Long is agricultural liaison for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (877-972-5438).

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