Havre Daily News
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns on Thursday announced the extension of deadlines for both Conservation Reserve Program sign-ups and special CRP re-enrollment and extension opportunities until April 28.
The deadlines were initially set for today.
Many of Hill County's about 1,400 contracts will be expiring over the next four years, which represents the largest number of contract changes in the United States, county Farm Service Agency executive director Mike Zook told a crowd of about 60 on Wednesday at the Montana State University-Northern Student Union Building Ballroom.
With new contracts also comes a large payment cut, Zook said Wednesday night.
“This is the part that stings a little bit,” Zook said before announcing the drop of rates.
FSA will calculate the maximum bid rate using the soil rental rates on the three predominant soils on the acreage.
For example, the rate of payment on one of the most common soils in Hill County will go down about one-third, Zook said today.
The payment changes were made on the national level by comparing the CRP rates to active crop land payments, he said.
CRP payments will decline on a per acre basis.
Participants in the program are paid to grow grasses and plants to enhance a habitat for large game animals and birds. In exchange for the planting of vegetation, participants receive annual rental payments and a payment of up to 50 percent of the cost of establishing conservation covers.
CRP contract holders are being offered two- to five-year contract extensions or 10-year re-enrollment.
Payment rates on extensions will receive the rental rate specified on the expiring contract.
New soil rates will be paid to those who are re-enrolling.
The decision whether to offer an extension or new contract to a participant came from the national level based on a Environmental Benefits Index number, which was how acreage was chosen for the program initially by evaluating factors including wildlife, water, soil and air. The numbers are frozen and can't be changed, Zook said.
Participants ranking in the Environmental Benefits Index's top one-fifth can re-enroll their land in a new 10-year contract. FSA offered the second one-fifth group a 5-year extension; the third one-fifth a 4-year extension; the fourth one-fifth a 3-year extension; and the remaining participants a 2-year extension.
Zook said contract holders can offer less land but cannot increase their acreage with the new deals.
Hill County has the most acres enrolled in CRP of any county in the nation, with about 300,000 acres in the program. About 280,000 contract acres will expire by 2010.
The contracts will begin expiring in September 2007.
FSA workers will inspect every acre of CRP in the county that is being offered an extension or re-enrollment. Zook said the local office will hire at least four extra staff members to help with the inspections.
Zook said landowners and operators may be invited to participate in the compliance reviews.
“We are going to try to work with people as long as they are trying to work with us,” Zook said.
He said all involved are in a better situation if contract holders are proactive.
Contract holders must meet contract compliance requirements before being approved for extensions or re-enrollment.
CRP requirements include the use of visually-established cover that is desirable to wildlife.
Violations to the the compliance requirements include not controlling noxious and nuisance weeds and unauthorized haying or grazing.
Zook said violations will be evaluated as to whether the contract holder made a “good faith effort” or not. Violators may be subject to a payment reduction or termination of CRP on affected acres.
Zook said participants who are concerned with the change or nervous they might not meet standards, they should draft a conservation plan or contact FSA and “open the dialogue.”
“If you don't think it's quite good enough, put on your thinking cap and come up with ideas to make it good enough,” he said. “You're the experts. We want to know how you think it can be done.”
Compliance review fees will not exceed $500 per contract with a $45 flat fee, plus $1 per acre.
All CRP participants with contracts effective Oct. 1, 2003, or later are required to perform management activities that are specified to the site and ensure plant diversity, wildlife benefits and protection of soil and water resources.
Montana has four accepted management activities: light tillage, fertilization, prescribed burning and interseeding of legumes.
Contract holders can receive cost-share rates for management activities.
CRP participants have been allowed use controlled burns to maintain land for the last three years.
Contract holders must abide by a Hill County burn ordinance, which took effect in March and states a burn plan must be created in order to receive a permit to burn areas of 80 acres or larger. According to the ordinance, the burn permits are good for 48 hours, the permit holder must contact all adjacent property owners and residents before the burn, and during the burn a water truck must be on hand.
“I think it's just called being a good neighbor. I hope that's what was already happening but unfortunately we know it wasn't,” Zook said.
The deadline for cost share eligibility for prescribed burns is today. If the contract holder is covering the costs, May 14 is the last day burns can be done.
The timing of grazing periods also will change in 2007.
This year the grazing periods are Feb. 15 to May 14 and July 16 to Nov. 12. Next year, grazing periods will change to either one 120-day period or two 60-day periods. Zook said the new timing will be set this fall after FSA officials meet with livestock organizations and wildlife groups.
All managed haying and grazing must be approved by FSA before it's started.
Zook said he has been asked if the field visit fees can be refunded if a person decides not to extend or re-enroll. If the field visit is completed, then no funds will be returned, he said, if the inspection is not completed, the fees can be refunded if the contract holder decides to opt out of CRP.
He said he is unsure if CPR participants who turn down the extensions will be provided another opportunity to extend their contracts.
“The opportunity is here right now. I wouldn't anticipate USDA providing this choice again,” Zook said today.