With millions of dollars hanging in the balance, the last thing prospective Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) participants want to hear is that they are starting the competitive bid process in worse shape than before.
That is exactly what Scotland County producers learned recently, as the region has lost its Wildlife Priority Area (WPA) designation, and the 30 possible points that went along with it, leaving some local CRP participants concerned that with an anticipated increase in ground seeking to enter the program, that some local property owners will be left on the outside looking in.
“A couple Farm Bills ago, Farm Service Agency was allowed to designate Wildlife Priority Areas in our state, not to exceed 33% of the total state of Missouri’s cropland,” explained, Allen Powell, CRP specialist with the Missouri FSA office in Columbia.
Powell indicated Scotland County was among the counties chosen at that time to receive WPA designation, “based mainly upon species decline such as quail, prairie chicken, pheasant and migratory bird populations and patterns.”
Producers in the WPA designation areas are eligible for up to 30 additional points on their CRP applications if their ground meets requirements.
“They do not automatically get the 30 points towards their offer,” Powell stated. “They are required to plant specific mixes of grasses, forbs, legumes, in order to receive these points.”
Unfortunately for Scotland County, the current CRP sign up is the first under the new Farm Bill, which has reduced the WPA offerings from 33% to just 25% of the state.
Scotland County was one of the causalities of the reductions, along with basically the entire northern most part of the state, adjoining the Iowa state line.
Powell indicated that in addition to Scotland County, Schuyler, Putnam, Mercer, Harrison, Worth, Nowaday and Gentry counties also lost their Wildlife Protection Area designation and the 30 possible additional points that went along with it.
Local FSA director Sharon Marks indicated the topic was discussed at the recent CRP meeting held in Memphis, but was not a concern at a similar meeting held in Kahoka, since Clark County was not previously a Wildlife Protection Area.
She noted that not having the WPA designation did not negatively impact Clark County.
“Not having the 30-point advantage did not have an impact on us last signup,” she said. “All but one of Clark County’s 54 offers were accepted, and the one that didn’t get approved was not a surprise.”
Marks noted that Scotland County had 45 offers during the last CRP signup and all were accepted, with only one applicant being declined in the signup process before that.
That has not curbed concerns for some local landowners, that if a large amount of ground is offered in the current signup that some of Scotland County’s applicants will be denied.
According to the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidy database, Scotland County received more than $2.6 million in CRP payments in 2013, the latest reporting year in the report. Since 1995, Scotland County has received $46.9 million in federal money for crop ground taken out of production for soil and wildlife conservation practices.
Scotland County ranked 13th in the state for CRP funds in 2013 according to the EWG report. Harrison County topped the list in 2013 with more than $6.2 million in CRP revenue, followed by Davies, Gentry and Carroll counties. In northeast Missouri, Knox County ranked 18th at just shy of $2.3 million, with Putnam County at 20th with just over $2 million. Clark County was 24th and Schuyler County was 29th with $1.7 million and $1.24 million in CRP contracts in 2013.
Missouri had the sixth highest CRP revenue in 2012 at $104 million. Iowa was tops with nearly $220 million in CRP, followed by Illinois with $126 million, ahead of Texas, Minnesota and Kansas.
With more than $2 million on the line, local CRP participants have expressed concern that the northern tier of counties in the state has been removed from the WPA designation.
Powell explained that a number of factors were considered by the USDA, NRCS, Missouri Department of Conservation and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in determining which counties would qualify as WPA.
Powell said the officials were not only faced with the task of reducing the eligible WPA counties from 33% of the state to just 25% of the state, but other factors were also added to the decision making process.
“We had to consider all the prior species, but also had to take into consideration Pollinator Habitat and the CRP Grassland programs requirements because that program has wildlife concerns also,” said Powell. “The pollinator losses are a big concern which I am sure you have read about when it comes to bee and monarch butterfly populations.”
Once the entities settled on the new WPA designations, the map was shared with the entire State Technical Committee for comments and/or suggestions before being approved.
“The State Tech Committee is made up of 75-100 individuals who represent different interest in agriculture such as Farm Bureau, Corn Growers, Soybean Growers, Dairy Council, MO Dept. of Ag, Sierra Club, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Xerces Society, Prairie Foundation, Quail Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Native Seed Association, and many more,” said Powell.
With the 30 WPA points accounting for 15% or more of many of the previous Scotland County applications, one cannot blame the local landowners for being concerned heading into the current signup, which runs December 1, 2015 through February 26, 2016, and wondering why their County was selected to lose the WPA designation.
Powell cautioned that it is impossible to compare one CRP signup process to the next, largely due to the volatility of the amount of acres to be offered by landowners.
“You never know how many acres are going to be offered nationwide, whether that is one million or four million. Due to acreage figures or money available, you never know what they are taking,” said Powell.
He cited the later example, noting that if four million acres are offered, and only one million acres are accepted, the competitive bid process might actually require scores twice as high as in the past to get into the CRP program.
That likely will leave local producers searching for ways to make up for the lost 30 WPA points.
Powell suggested changing the ground cover as one easy way to make up some points.
“Most guys in your area planted fescue or brome 10-20 years ago and don’t want to change the cover, said Powell. “These get the lowest point score for cover and unless the producer changes the cover they don’t get the 30 wildlife points anyway because these are not considered wildlife friendly covers.”
Powell said producers who change to a cool season grass mix can gain 30 points for this 1 factor, with the option to plant a Warm Season Grass mix that would gain them 40 points. Other suggestions included implementation of a pollinator plot equal to or greater than 10% of the total CRP offer, which can gain 20 points.
“In many cases if they exclude the flatter portions of the field(s) they can gain 10-50 points,” he said. “If they would agree to plant some or all to trees, that would gain someone probably 50-75 points.”
One option local landowners do not want to hear is reducing contract rates.
“Most of the producers in the counties who are no longer in the Wildlife Priority Areas can lower their offer rental rate per acre,” said Powell. “That sounds bad at first but considering most producers that are coming out have been getting between $65-80 per acre and the current soil rental rates may be coming out to $110-140 this time. If that producer would lower their offer $10-15 per acre they could gain between 20-24 points.”
Powell explained that each producers rate is different, dependent on soil types, which dictate the maximum soil rental rate.
“You could have guys who live across the road from each other and one guy’s max offer could be $100 per acre and his neighbor be $150,” Powell said. “As you can see, producers have a lot of choices when it comes to enhancing their points. People are always concerned when factors change for them personally, but we had to cut somewhere due to the policy change. The majority of counties in our state have never had the Wildlife Priority Area designation and in order to compete in the offer process have had to do one or more of things mentioned above in order to get into the program.”