Need To Heed USDA HEL & Wetland Rules

Need To Heed USDA HEL & Wetland Rules

Before you bring new land or CRP ground into crop production, check with your local Farm Service Agency office.

FAQ: We had 40 acres in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program for the past 15 years and the contract expired in 2011. We want to plant corn there in 2012. About half of that field is classified as HEL (highly erodible land) by NRCS. What risk do we run of losing our eligibility for USDA farm program benefits if we bring the entire 40 acres back into row crop production? Could we plant corn and beans no-till on that 40 acres and still be eligible for USDA farm program benefits? 

Answer: Some farmers are running the risk of losing their eligibility to receive USDA farm program benefits by bringing new land into production this year and not paying attention to soil conservation compliance rules. They could lose eligibility for farm program payments on all the land they farm, not just on the farm or the field that is out of compliance.

John Whitaker, state executive director of USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) in Iowa, reminds landowners and farm operators that in order to receive farm program payments from USDA, compliance with Highly Erodible Land (HEL) and Wetland Conservation (WC) provisions is required. 

“High grain prices have caused many farm operators to break out new land, clear trees, and other activities to bring land into crop production, including what was Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage,” says Whitaker. “You should have these areas reviewed by FSA to ensure any work will not jeopardize your eligibility for farm program benefits now or in the future.” 

Farmers with fields and soils that have been determined to be HEL are reminded to follow tillage, crop residue and crop rotation requirements as specified in their conservation system or plan. Producers should notify FSA prior to conducting land clearing or drainage projects to ensure compliance.

Clearing a fence row or converting pasture into cropland can cause problems

Landowners and operators can complete form AD-1026 “Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC) and Wetland Conservation (WC) Certification” to determine whether a referral to the local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office is necessary. “Something as simple as clearing a fence row or converting a pasture into cropland to produce an agricultural commodity could result in losing USDA benefits,” adds Whitaker. 

Persons who produce an agricultural commodity on a field or fields where highly erodible land is predominant, are ineligible for benefits under the Highly Erodible Land Provisions (HELC) unless it has been determined by NRCS that an acceptable conservation system is being actively applied. This conservation system must be adequate for protecting highly erodible land and will be based on the local NRCS technical guide. 

Under the Wetland Conservation (WC) Provisions, persons are ineligible for benefits if they plant an agricultural commodity on a wetland that was converted after December 23, 1985; or if they convert a wetland after November 28, 1990, by draining dredging, filing, leveling or any other means for the purpose, or to have the effect, of making the production of an agricultural commodity possible. 

Be very careful about bringing former CRP acres back into crop production

Much of the acreage that has been offered into CRP was eligible for that program because the land was highly erodible, notes Whitaker. Producers should review their conservation plan or discuss their conservation systems with NRCS before former CRP acreage is converted back to agricultural production.

For more information on Highly Erodible Land and Wetland Conservation provisions, contact your local FSA office or visit FSA online at

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