Farmers making planting plans should not overlook an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, says Al Garner, acting state conservationist for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Iowa.
High grain prices are influencing Iowa farmers to plant more corn and soybeans. However, the downside is the risk of more soil erosion and the risk of getting out of compliance for USDA programs. A good solution for these two problems is the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program or CRP. Two USDA agencies, the NRCS and the Farm Service Agency or FSA, administer this program.
"Continuous CRP is a great option for farmers who may be increasing their cash grain acres, on land coming out of sod, or for any field needing some erosion control," says Garner.
Farmers should enroll before March 15
The Continuous CRP is similar to the general CRP in that it offers annual rental payments and cost-sharing, but is designed for the small sensitive areas needing erosion control. Practices like grassed waterways and buffers that have huge erosion control benefits, but are small in acreage, can be cost-shared through continuous CRP. USDA encourages farmers to enroll now, before March 15, when the current Farm Bill expires.
"With the new Farm Bill being debated in Congress, no one can be sure what changes we may see," says Derryl McLaren, FSA state director for Iowa. He says the program is open now and eligible acres can be enrolled, "We hope that Continuous CRP will carry on in the new farm bill, but there is no guarantee."
Continuous CRP was developed to protect areas of fields that are susceptible to soil erosion and to provide a sediment filter around water sources near crop fields. Farmers with eligible land may agree to protect the areas for 10 to 15 years by installing grass waterways, filter strips, riparian buffers, field windbreaks, contour grass strips and shallow water areas for wildlife.
As an incentive to participate in Continuous CRP, landowners receive annual rental payments for land taken out of production and for maintenance of the conservation practices. With most practices, landowners receive up to 50% cost share for installation and an additional 40% of eligible installation costs as an incentive payment. And with some practices, participants receive one-time signing incentive payment of $100 per acre.
McLaren points out how easy it is to enroll in CCRP. "In continuous CRP, if all eligibility requirements are met, you're in," he says.
Stay safe, stay in compliance
In order to remain eligible for various USDA programs, farmers still need to use conservation systems on highly erodible fields. Farmers also need to control "ephemeral" or gully erosion in order to maintain program eligibility, including federal disaster assistance and USDA farm loans.
Ephemeral soil erosion refers to the channels and gullies, a few inches to several feet wide, that form in tilled fields after rains.
Keep in mind that all acreage enrolled in CRP requires maintenance, for example mowing weeds, brush control or invasive species management, adds Garner. In addition, some contracts include required management at the mid-point of the contract, which may involve disking or herbicides and re-seeding.
Sign up at USDA Service Centers
Landowners interested in the program should contact their local USDA Service Center to see if the land is eligible. There is no obligation to participate until the final contracts are signed.
"The Continuous Conservation Reserve Program provides an excellent opportunity for farmers to take care of the troublesome areas on their farms, and also lock in some income from those small areas for 10 to 15 years," notes Garner. "Conservation practices installed on erodible and sensitive areas can cut soil erosion, keep sediment out of the water and help keep farmers in compliance for USDA program benefits."