3 million acres to come out of program this fall

By MATTHEW WEAVER

Capital Press

About 3 million acres of farmland will come out of the Conservation Reserve Program by Sept. 30 under the 2008 Farm Bill.

The Commodity Credit Corp. is attempting to determine what that means to farmers and the environment through a series of listening sessions like the one last week in Spokane.

"We're required by law to reduce the program down to 32 million acres by Oct. 1," USDA Farm Service Agency national environmental compliance manager Matthew Ponish said.

Issues that stood out during the Spokane meeting, attended by about 65 people, included grower concerns about expiring program land.

"We understand there's a lot of acreage coming out that people feel shouldn't be coming out," he said.

The meeting was the only listening session in the Pacific Northwest. The agency will have eight more meetings across the U.S. through Oct. 8. Public comments are being sought until Oct. 19.

Spokane County Conservation District executive director Rich Baden was struck by the diversity of issues raised during the meeting.

"One size doesn't fit all," he said. "We need to have these programs flexible so they fit the various microclimates where the CRP is."

Baden would like to see each state agency director have the option to implement variations to the program to meet the needs of people, the local economy and wildlife.

Ritzville, Wash.-area farmer Ross Heimbigner said he would like to see every farm have the option of putting 25 percent of its land into the program.

"Right now there's a lot of farms that need to put some ground in," he said. "The whole farms take that acreage up so quick. Most farmers have more than one farm unit. If you take 25 percent out of each farm, you're going to be less acres than a whole farm, but it will be a lot more fair."

Jim Davis, a farmer in Douglas County, Wash., said he wasn't satisfied that he was heard about the magnitude of the consequences in his county, where 8 percent of the CRP land has to come out under the new law, regardless of the benefits they could provide an endangered species.

"Endangered species protection was not part of the law's design, but that's what we need to be able to continue to provide habitat," Davis said. "It also allows farmers to continue to farm."

Washington Association of Wheat Growers Vice President Brett Blankenship included in his comments a wish to see tenant farmers protected from landlords who cancel leases to get CRP income.

Blankenship said he was impressed by the interest in the conservation program and effort to solve problems.

"It's a valuable conservation tool, and we would like to see the program continue," he said. "It does need to be modernized and move forward."

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