Havre Daily News
The federal Farm Service Agency's Conservation Reserve Program has had major and numerous impacts on the livelihood of Hill County farmers. The program's effects here will likely change significantly in coming years, a local FSA official said, because contracts on about 280,000 of the county's 300,000 CRP acres are set to expire by 2010.
The agency is offering 2- to 5-year extensions and new, 10-year contracts for the land, county FSA executive director Mike Zook said Thursday. The contracts are set to begin expiring in September 2007. The expirations represent the largest number of contract changes in the nation, he added.
At a public meeting set for Wednesday at 7 p.m., Zook will cover a wide range of issues, including the contract expirations, land inspections, new CRP soil rental rates, new loan deficiency payment rates, and prescribed burns on CRP land.
“Essentially, what we're going to talk about is the future of CRP in Hill County,” Zook said. “This meeting will have something for everyone.”
The meeting will be held in the Montana State University-Northern Student Union Building Ballroom.
Zook said some contract holders are opting out of the program because the new 10-year contracts largely offer less money.
“Almost all of them have gone down, some of them significantly,” he said.
The program pays farmers to grow various types of grasses and forbs in order to enhance wildlife habitat. Most people think of the program as a benefit for large game such as deer, elk and antelope, Zook said, but CRP lands provide crucial feeding grounds for upland game birds, western songbirds and migratory birds.
The agency will be visiting CRP acreage to check for patches that don't have enough of the desired plant species and have too many weeds, which he called “cheat grass.”
“We want to make sure that the cover that's established on these acres is desirable for wildlife and not just a weed patch,” he said. “We'll be visiting every acre, and if it's not meeting the standards, then they will not be allowed to extend or renew their contracts.”
Recent rains may have dampened plans for prescribed burns on CRP land, but Zook still wants to update farmers on Hill County's new burn ordinance before next Friday's burn deadline for contract land.
The ordinance, which took effect March 23, states that owners of fields larger than 80 acres must create a burn plan before they are issued a permit. The permit holder also must notify all adjacent property operators and residents before burning. The ordinance outlaws burns on days with wind in excess of 10 mph.
Hill County Commissioners have said they enacted the ordinance to protect firefighters and residents from large burns that get out of control.
CRP contract holders have been allow to use controlled burns to maintain land for the last three years, Zook said.
He called CRP a “double-edged sword.”
The program has been a catalyst for an explosion in wildlife, and has enabled farmers to make their land payments in recent years of drought and low grain prices, staving off farm consolidation, he said.
Zook estimated more than half of CRP land in the county is owned by out-of-state interests, meaning those dollars leave local communities.