February 19, 2015

Land conservation efforts endangered in Champaign County and beyond

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Photo of Illinois Farm Bill biologist

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

Illinois Farm Bill biologist Jason Bleich talks with Georgetown farmer Travis Vice about how the type of soils on his farm help determine the subsidy at the USDA office in Danville on Thursday, February 12, 2015.

As a result of the Farm Bill passed by Congress a year ago, efforts to increase wildlife habitats and natural areas that filter fertilizer run-off will receive less funding and result in fewer acres of conserved land.

As of December, there were 9,770 acres set aside in Champaign County for a program in which the federal government rents land from farmers for conservation purposes.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has rental contracts that run anywhere from 10 to 15 years and offers farmers money in return for letting the government convert their land to a natural area.

“It’s by far the most successful conservation program in the history of conservation,” said Jason Bleich, a Farm Bill Biologist that maintains and enrolls conservation land in East Central Illinois.

However, to comply with a $4 billion cut to the conservation elements of the Farm Bill, the maximum amount of acres allowed into the program will be incrementally lowered. Nationally, it will decrease from 27.5 million acres in 2014 to 24 million acres in 2017.

That is a far cry from the 32 million acre cap that was in place in 1992, says Stacy James of the Prairie Rivers Network.

“CRP isn’t what it used to be,” she added.

According to the Farm Service Agency, more than 25 million acres were enrolled in the program in August nationally, already passing the incoming 2017 cap.

Resource Conservationist Jonathon Manuel from the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District said local farmers have an increasing interest in enrolling in the program. He is hopeful the number of acres in Champaign County will continue to grow.

“I think when you see the new numbers come out after this year, you’ll see we’re actually going to go back up,” he said.

But the increase could be temporary.

Jamie Diebal, conservation specialist with the state Farm Service Agency office, said, with the new caps, the agency will be more selective with what land they bring into the program.

“The acres being withdrawn from CRP are likely going into row crop production,” James said. “Acre for acre, row crop production results in more water pollution, due to erosion of exposed soil and application of fertilizer, and less wildlife habitat than CRP lands.”

Some are anticipating it will decrease in parts of the country that have historically dominated the program, like the Dakotas, and the result of the decrease may still leave a little wiggle room for more enrollment in the conservation program.

Bruce Stikker, who held Manuel’s job until he retired a year ago, explained that since the Dakotas are hilly, they’ve been a focal point of the program in the past, as hilly land is more prone to erosion when farmed.

The rise in affordable, cold-resistant seeds has caused farmers to till the land and use it for food production, he said.

Since most of Champaign County is flat, not that many acres are enrolled in the program locally – except with filter strips. These are pieces of land that line stream banks and drainage ditches that help filter fertilizer runoff before it reaches waterways with tall grasses.

CU-CitizenAccess.org analyzed data from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and found that over the past 14 years, about 48 percent of Champaign County’s enrolled acres have been enrolled in filter strips.

Manuel also estimates that about 75 percent of Champaign County’s drainage ditches have filter strips. He added that most farmers enroll filter strips because “it’s the right thing to do.”

Manuel says that his district may have to increasingly rely on other conservation programs. This includes the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which takes in land and pays the landowner a cost-share.

“Obviously the best program in (the owner’s) interest is CRP because they get all the sign up bonuses, the cost share and all the annual rental payments,” Bleich said.

“If we can’t get them into either of those programs, that’s when we’ll use our Pheasants Forever Program. And that one basically covers the cost of the seed, herbicide and management practices,” he added.

The Pheasants Forever program is paid for by a habitat fund created by hunting license registration.

The Farm Service Agency, the group in charge of administering the program nationally, is in the process of adopting a new “targeted enrollment” plan in the face of the declining acres brought on by the Farm Bill.

According to the draft of the plan, “targeted enrollment” will focus on the costs of a land owner’s bids to let new acres into the program, putting more of an emphasis on cost than environmental benefits. The targeted enrollment would take place during years that the agency doesn’t use the normal enrollment method for new acres: general sign up.

During general sign up, the agency assigns pieces of land different point values off the Environmental Benefits Index, which factors in how well the land controls erosion and protects the environment. Scores can go up to 440, depending on the year – the higher the score, the better the land will protect the environment.

Every year that the agency starts a general sign up, they gather these values and determine a cut-off for new acres, maximizing the amount of acres they can fit in. Usually the cutoff score is around 200 to 220, Diebal said.

“With CRP enrollment decreasing, they may set the points higher, to like a 250 to 275 point break off,” she said.

Cost is considered to maximize the program’s effectiveness, but it’s not the largest factor, as it is with the proposed targeted enrollment.

Greg Fogel, a policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, submitted a comment on the draft that proposed targeted enrollment, and, currently, all comments are under review.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing (to focus on cost) but it’s not the purpose of the program. The purpose of the program is to spend money in order to generate environmental benefits. Cost is already a factor in the EBI, it just probably deserves to be weighted a little bit more, or at least they could explore that possibility,” he said.

Diebal said FSA anticipates a small general sign up period for CRP early this year, though no official date has been announced.

Updated Feb. 23, 2014:An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that there would be small general sign up for CRP next year. The story has been corrected to read there will be a small general sign up period early this year.