Conservation Compliance is Raising Questions

Conservation Compliance is Raising Questions

High grain prices are pulling land out of pasture, hay and CRP and into row crop.

FAQ: I've been notified by our local USDA Farm Service Agency office that I'm out of compliance with my soil conservation plan. I've converted some pasture and former CRP land to row crop this year. It is classified as highly erodible land. The FSA office tells me I'm not the only farmer in my county that is being warned about noncompliance. I've been told I can file an appeal. Please explain.

NOT IN COMPLIANCE: With high commodity prices, farmers are pulling land out of pasture, hay and CRP, and draining wetlands, to plant row crops. A number of farmers are being found out of compliance, not following their soil conservation plan on highly erodible land. Some are being fined by USDA and are losing eligibility for farm program benefits.

Answer: High grain prices are prompting more pasture, hay and Conservation Reserve Program land to be planted to corn and soybeans. In some cases wetlands have been drained. The situation with land designated as highly erodible and wetland is raising questions about conservation compliance and eligibility to participate in USDA farm programs. Some farmers have been found "out of compliance" and fines have been levied.

Beth Grabau, public affairs and outreach specialist with the Farm Service Agency's state office in Des Moines provides the following answers to some commonly asked questions. For more information contact your local FSA office or go to www.fsa.usda.gov/ia.

Question: What were the reasons behind passage of the conservation compliance provisions of the farm bill? 

Answer: In 1985, Highly Erodible and Wetland Conservation Provisions were enacted into law. The objectives were to: reduce soil loss because of wind and water erosion, protect the nation's long-term capacity to produce food and fiber, reduce sedimentation and improve water quality, help preserve the nation's wetlands and to remove the incentive for persons to produce agricultural commodities on highly erodible land or converted wetland. 

Persons who request certain USDA program benefits must comply with Highly Erodible Land Conservation, or HELC, and Wetland Conservation, or WC, provisions to be eligible for benefits.  Certification of compliance is required by signing form AD-1026.  Certification is required for each person and their affiliates with farming interests. Filing of an AD-1026 is done in the designated recording county for FSA. 

While there is no specific deadline, before a producer can be considered eligible for benefits, this form must have been filed, which certifies compliance with HELC/WC provisions. 

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Note: Persons are to notify FSA prior to conducting land clearing or drainage projects -- to ensure compliance. Persons who will be cropping former CRP acres must also follow a conservation plan/acceptable system if the expired CRP field is on highly erodible land, in order to be eligible for USDA benefits.

Question: What are the basic restrictions of conservation compliance? What are the definitions of HELC and WC provisions? 

Answer: Persons who produce an agricultural commodity on field(s) where highly erodible land is predominant, or by converting wetlands, maybe ineligible for benefits under most programs administered by USDA.  

As it relates to the HELC, a highly erodible field is where highly erodible land, or HEL, is predominant. HEL is land that has an erodibility index of 8 or more. HEL shall be considered predominant if either: 1) 33.33% or more of the total field acreage is identified as having highly erodible types; 2) 50 or more acres in a field are identified as highly erodible. 

Land considered to be sodbusted is land that was converted from native vegetation, such as rangeland or woodland, to crop production after December 23, 1985. 

Under the HELC provisions, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service can determine whether the person is actively applying an approved conservation plan. This determination is based on the local NRCS technical guide, as approved or using a conservation system determined to be adequate for producing an agricultural commodity on HEL. 

As the law relates to WC provisions, persons are ineligible for benefits under certain programs administered by USDA if they: 1) plant an agricultural commodity on wetland that was converted after December 23, 1985; 2) convert a wetland after November 28, 1990 by draining, dredging, filling, leveling or any other means for the purpose, or to have the effect, of making the production of an agricultural commodity possible.

If it is determined wetland conservation provisions have been violated, those persons who are determined responsible for conversion of a wetland after November 28, 1990, shall be ineligible for benefits for: 1) The crop or program year benefits that are equal to the calendar year that NRCS determined the conversion occurred; 2) Each subsequent crop or program year after the conversion occurred, unless the wetland is restored before January 1 of the subsequent crop or program year. 

Note: This provision applies regardless of when the conversion violation is discovered. 

Question: I realize I am to provide notice to FSA first, but what is that process?

Answer: The notification is done by signing the AD-1026. The area where activities will be conducted must be identified on a map. FSA refers the AD-1026 to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, who will make highly erodible land and/or wetland compliance determinations. 

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If NRCS has determined HEL, NRCS will develop conservation plans and review systems to determine if HELC compliance requirements are met. 

Soils determined to be HEL may require tillage, crop residue and rotation applied to the land to remain in compliance and be eligible for USDA benefits. The requirements for a field are specified in the conservation plan.

NRCS will also determine the type of wetland and if there certain exemptions that could apply to remain eligible for covered USDA benefits if conversion occurred. 

Annually, NRCS makes visits to farms to verify that the land is being farmed according to an acceptable conservation plan/system or that no conversion was made without prior approval. These visits can result from a random selection, or through a whistleblower, or if an area was found through another review or from an aerial photography review. When a potential violation is found, the producers involved are given an opportunity to meet with FSA/NRCS staff.

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