Tom Vilsack

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack expects softening commodity prices and land values to create stiff competition among the nation’s farmers to enroll their marginal cropland into a popular conservation program this year.

“This will be the most competitive general CRP sign-up seen in quite some time,’’ he said Wednesday.

CRP is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program. The 30-year-old initiative pays a yearly rental payment in exchange for farmers removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production to be planted with certain grasses, shrubs and trees that improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and increase wildlife habitat.

Vilsack said the program’s environmental benefits should appeal to urban dwellers, too, because in addition to re-establishing native plant species on marginal agricultural lands, the grasslands reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon.

“And for those concerned about the rural economy, nearly 13,000 Nebraska farms received more than $58 million in rental payments,’’ Vilsack told The World-Herald in an interview. “That money rolls around in the community and supports a lot of folks who provide services and products in rural areas.’’

Dan Steinkruger, state executive director of USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Nebraska, said at times when commodity prices are low, enrolling sensitive lands in CRP can be especially attractive to farmers and ranchers, as it softens the economic hardship for landowners at the same time that it provides ecological benefits.

Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the program is great for landowners and farmers who want to protect environmentally sensitive land, whether the goal is to bring back pheasants, plant woodland for long-term profit or improving water quality.

The deadline for landowners to submit offers for the program’s competitive enrollment period is Feb. 26. This is the first opportunity for them to bid land back into the general CRP since 2013.

Vilsack said the most competitive offers will stack conservation benefits, including those for water quality and wildlife.

In addition to factoring in lower land prices and rental rates — plus weaker prices for wheat, corn and soybeans — the sign-up will be more competitive than usual because Congress limited the maximum number of acres at 24 million in the 2014 farm bill.

As of last month 23.6 million acres across the country are enrolled in CRP, with 1.6 million acres expiring this fall.

Submissions are ranked according to environmental benefits in comparison to all other offers nationwide. USDA will announce accepted offers after the enrollment period ends and offers are reviewed.

Nebraska has 63,037 acres coming out of contracts this year; Iowa has 99,596 acres expiring. Contract duration is between 10 and 15 years.

The sign-up is getting a big push by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the state’s Pheasants Forever chapters and the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture. The three organizations have been identifying important landscape factors and geographies. Letters were sent to more than 43,000 landowners highlighting the sign-up and rental rates.

Nearly 60 informational meetings were held across the state for interested producers.

Vilsack said USDA has already seen record demand for continuous and grassland CRP sign-ups. A record number of continuous CRP acres were enrolled last year totaling more than 830,000 acres. These high-value acres provide multiple benefits on the same land, including water quality, wildlife, carbon sequestration and others. For example, the acres dedicated to pollinators has almost tripled to more than 190,000 acres.

This record sign-up came after an announcement last May that an additional 800,000 acres would be accepted for key natural resource protections. Wetland restorations have increased 77,000 acres, duck nesting habitats have increased 35,000 acres and other wildlife habitat has increased 255,000 acres within CRP known as State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement.

Vilsack said farmers, ranchers, conservationists, hunters, fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts have made CRP one of the most successful conservation programs in the history of the country over the last three decades.

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