Despite erosion risks, 'if it's farmed correctly, it can be productive'

By JOHN O'CONNELL

Capital Press

Scott Wegner will double the size of his farm in Idaho's hilly Rockland Valley this season by planting hundreds of acres that haven't been cultivated since 1986.

He's among the many U.S. farmers putting Conservation Reserve Program land back into production to take advantage of strong commodity prices.

Officials with USDA's Farm Service Agency believe CRP contract applications were down nationwide in the general enrollment period that ended April 13. Due to the potential to influence markets, states don't release specific numbers until the federal government scores and awards contracts.

On Sept. 30, 6.5 million of the program's 32 million U.S. acres will expire -- the most ever to come out at once -- and new 10-year contracts will commence the following day.

On reclaimed CRP land, Wegner is leasing 1,100 acres planted in winter wheat, 255 acres for safflower, 500 acres for barley and 500 acres for spring wheat.

"This ground in part is what you would consider highly erodible, but if it's farmed correctly, it can be productive," Wegner said, adding he'll utilize minimum tillage practices to limit erosion.

Dana Peterson, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers, predicts CRP will lose 5 million to 7 million acres due to market forces, which should help offset anticipated program cuts.

"The forecast for CRP is that it will continue. We accept that with increased commodity prices, growers will be pulling acres out and getting back into production," Peterson said. "We definitely want the Natural Resources Conservation Service to work with farmers in determining the most sensitive lands and re-enrolling those back into their programs. The less sensitive lands we think should come out."

Rod Hamilton, farm program chief with the Washington FSA, anticipates the greatest CRP declines will take place in the Midwest.

"In Washington, it was not as major a reduction as we might have expected based on ... high commodity prices," Hamilton said.

CRP contracts could be released within a month, said Ron Abbott, farm programs chief with the Idaho FSA.

"I do get a sense that our acreage is going to be down," Abbott said, adding the agency attributes the apparent decline to strong commodity prices.

With 54,000 CRP acres available, Power County received 117 offers totaling 24,000 acres by the April 13 deadline, said Brett Gullett, Farm Bill coordinator with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Southeast Region.

Based on the competitiveness of past Power County sign-ups, he said, many growers offered to do more wildlife improvements than they'll likely need to win contracts.

He believes some of the county's CRP demand was addressed through a continuous enrollment program, called SAFE, intended to benefit sharp-tailed grouse. But he added, "With crop prices being high it doesn't help (CRP)."

In Bannock County, Idaho, landowners applied for 14,500 acres, with 15,000 acres coming out of CRP in September. Tom Williams, with Bannock County FSA, noted in 2010, only 36 contracts of 204 that expired were allowed back in because the county's acreage was above a cap.

"I thought we'd see some of the other producers who expired back in 2010 reoffering. I was anticipating a little more involvement," Williams said.

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