By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A controversial agricultural program may undergo substantial revision in the next few years, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency is looking for suggestions about how the Conservation Reserve Program can be improved.
"It's been a very controversial issue over the whole United States," said Rudyard farmer Mike Wendland. "We've struggled with this issue since its beginning."
A request for public comment on CRP was published in the Federal Register on Aug. 10. Comments will be accepted through Dec. 8.
The FSA also is accepting bids from Aug. 30 through Sept. 24 to enroll land in the program in 2005 or 2006, including land now in the program with contracts expiring this year or in 2005.
The five-page Federal Register notice, and information about this year's CRP signup, are available online.
Tracy Harshman, the FSA director in Blaine County, said comments from people in north-central Montana, who know CRP firsthand, could be very helpful in improving CRP before 2007, when the majority of contracts for land now in CRP begin to expire.
"Peoples' perception of CRP when they're not in an area where there is CRP is a lot different," Harshman said.
FSA's Hill County director, Mike Zook, said he thinks comments from north-central Montanans could have a major impact on the future shape of CRP. The national directors of FSA are very good about listening to suggestions, he said.
"Literally, they want to hear the good and the bad," he said. "CRP is one of those issues that has good and bad."
A debate has raged almost since the start of the program: Does CRP help communities by providing income to producers while creating conservation benefits, or hurt communities by taking land out of active production?
The program pays rent and part of the costs to take cropland out of active production and implement conservation practices, such as planting grass, trees and shrubs to prevent erosion, improve water quality and create wildlife habitat.
CRP pays significant amounts of money to farmers and entities in north-central Montana.
The Environmental Working Group Web site, which lists top recipients of CRP payments and other agricultural subsidies around the country, said people and entities with land in Hill County received the most CRP payments in 2002 in the state.
Hill County landowners received $11.32 million in CRP payments in 2002. Chouteau County was second in the state with $10.4 million in payments, Blaine County was sixth with $5.4 million and Liberty County was ninth with $4.9 million.
The top recipient in the state, and in Hill, Chouteau and Liberty counties, was the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for trust land it manages and has put into CRP. It received more than $2 million from CRP in 2002, and received $264,861 for land in Chouteau County, $229,410 for land in Hill County, and $115,753 for land in Liberty County.
The largest recipient in Blaine County was the Fort Belknap Indian Community, which received $177,623. The second-highest recipient in Blaine County was the Montana Board of Investments, which received $170,639 for land it manages.
The second-highest recipient in Hill County in 2002 was Pester Brother Farms, owned by Jerome Pester Farms Inc. and Gary Pester Farms, both of Rudyard. That operation received $141,659.
The second-highest recipient in Chouteau County in 2002 was Rainbow Ranch Partnerships, owned by Richard Rominger of Great Falls and Corey Rominger of Floweree, which received $121,605.
The second-highest recipient in Liberty County in 2002 was Hadford Farm Partnerships, owned by Gary Hadford of Rudyard, David Hadford of Joplin and Elaine Hadford of Rudyard. Hadford Farm Partnerships received $85,836.
The Federal Register notice said USDA wants to collect public input on: how it should manage the expiration from 2007 to 2010 of nearly 29 million acres of land in CRP; ways to improve the design and delivery of CRP; ways to develop an administrative system to handle the large number of bids to enroll land in CRP that are likely from 2007 on; and effects of CRP that people think should be studied.
Changes in the program could make it more difficult to enroll land in north-central Montana, Zook said. If the focus on wildlife shifts to animals in other parts of the country, or other factors in CRP change, the acceptance of Montana bids could drop.
"Those in favor of CRP may have to defend why dollars should be spent here to benefit wildlife," Zook said.
Changes in the program and in the application process have already dropped the local acceptance rate, he said. Hill County has had up to 90 percent of bids to enroll land accepted in recent signups, but only 44 percent were accepted in last year's signup.
Producers in this year's signup probably will need to be aggressive in their conservation proposals, especially with proposals to promote wildlife habitat, before their bids will be accepted, he said.
Zook said only about 6,000 acres can be enrolled in Hill County as a result of this year's signup before the county would reach its limit of 25 percent of cropland enrolled.
CRP contracts for about 72,000 acres in Hill County will expire in 2007, he said.
"CRP is on people's radars because it's huge," he said.
Zook said Hill County has the most acres enrolled in CRP of any county in the United States, with about 300,335 acres in the program.
Harshman said Blaine County now has more than 162,800 acres in CRP, with almost 75,700 acres expiring in 2007.
Chouteau County has about 264,000 acres in CRP, with about 117,000 acres expiring in 2007.
Liberty County has about 139,500 acres enrolled, with more than 17,600 acres that could be enrolled in this year's signup and almost 40,000 acres expiring in 2007.
North-central Montanans have mixed opinions on the effects of CRP, with many torn between lauding its benefits and deriding its harm to the economy.
Bill Bradbury, who ranches in the Bear Paw Mountains and farms north of Havre and near Rudyard, credits CRP with helping him make it through recent years of drought and low ag prices. The CRP payments gave him a stable income for his operation, Bradbury said.
"I would be lying if I said it didn't help me," he said.
That income for farmers has helped the economy as well, he said.
"I think it's a good program. I think it's helped the community a lot," Bradbury said.
Dick Pollington of Kremlin, a member of the FSA Hill County Committee, has the opposite opinion.
"I guess I don't really care for any more CRP to go in," he said. "It's kind of harming the economy of the whole area in a lot of respects."
Part of the problem has been expansion of the program, with more and more land going in, he said. CRP has changed from an erosion-prevention program to a wildlife-habitat creation program, he said.
Meanwhile, ag-related businesses are being hurt because farmers aren't farming, and that has a trickledown effect on the rest of the local economy, he said.
However, Pollington said he doesn't want the program eliminated.
"Economically, for some people it's the way to go," he said. "If not, there wouldn't be so many people who sign up for it."
Ron Brenna, owner of Havre Laundry and Dry Cleaning, said the loss of sales in ag-related businesses hurts the overall economy.
"This is pretty much a no-brainer," he said.
However, producers need some kind of help if farming and ranching on the Hi-Line are to survive, he added.
"For some, it's probably the only way they could keep the family farm," he said.
CRP hasn't directly cut into Havre Laundry's business, but it has indirectly hurt, Brenna said.
People from other businesses, like implement dealers, fuel companies and tire dealerships, that have lost income don't spend as much money in the community, Brenna said. For instance, businesses are renting far less work clothing like shirts and coveralls from Havre Laundry than they used to five or 10 years ago.
While he can't say CRP was the single cause, he believes it was part of the reason, Brenna said.
Brenna said farmers and ranchers he knows have said they would like to get their fields back into active production. He supports that.
A report issued by USDA's Economic Research Service in May found that CRP has not hurt community economies significantly, the Federal Register notice said.
CRP did not have a significant verifiable effect on populations where land is enrolled in CRP, and while it was associated with some job losses between 1986 and 1992, immediately following the program's introduction in 1985, the job loss did not persist, the notice said.
The report also said the Economic Research Service found no significant evidence that CRP encourages people to leave the region they are from when they enroll land in the program.
The notice invites people to comment on how adverse economic impacts can be mitigated.
Wendland, chair of the Hill County Conservation District and a member of the Montana Association of Conservation Districts board of directors, said he sees both good and bad in CRP.
He said he has land in CRP, but also still farms.
"The stable income (in) the last few drought years has been pretty nice," Wendland said. "At the same time I can see the implement dealers, the ag dealers, what has happened to them. We have lost a lot of implement dealers, especially along the Hi-Line."
The evolution of CRP has led to many of the problems it has caused, he said: The program no longer focuses on marginal, erodable land.
The original intent of CRP was to pay for conservation practices that emphasized reducing soil erosion, but has expanded to include improving water quality and protecting wildlife, the Federal Register notice said.
Wendland added that from the beginning CRP allowed most of the land in Montana east of the divide to be enrolled, because most of the land is susceptible to wind and water erosion.
"Everything was available, even ground that we here in Hill County thought was really productive," he said.
FSA prefers comments be made at its Web site at www.fsa.usda.gov/mt/. Comments will also be accepted via e-mail at CRPRULE.CRPRULE@wdc.usda.gov, or by mail at Director, Conservation and Environmental Programs Division, Farm Service Agency, Room 4714-S, Stop 1513, 1400 Independence Ave. S.W., Washington, D.C. 20250-0513.
On the Net: Montana Farm Service Agency: www.fsa.usda.gov/mt
Environmental Working Group farm subsidy database: www.ewg.org/farm