USDA program making real difference

Published 11:03 pm Friday, February 26, 2016

By Val Docini
Docini is a Farm Service Agency Administrator.

The modern environmental conservation movement is one that has brought awareness and conservation practices to many urban audiences.  To some, it probably seems like a recent shift in American thinking.

But American farmers and ranchers throughout rural and tribal lands were the original conservationists, wasting nothing and preserving as much as possible. And in recent decades, they’ve produced some amazing results that everyone should know about as a result of the USDA Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. This relatively young program, in farming terms, just entered its 30th year. CRP is a voluntary program where farmers remove environmentally-sensitive land from production for 10 to 15 years. Farmers re-establish key plant species, like approved grasses or trees, to improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and create wildlife habitat. In return, farmers receive modest annual payments.

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Since 1985, producers enrolled in CRP all across the nation have been responsible for restoring 2.7 million acres of wetlands and protecting 170,000 stream miles — enough to go around the world seven times. This protected water is responsible for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus runoff by 95 and 85 percent relative to cropland, respectively. The program has enabled farmers and ranchers to reduce soil erosion by more than 9 billion tons, and even sequester 1.4 billion metric tons of greenhouse gasses — equal to taking 9 million cars off the road every year.

These restoration efforts also have an amazing and nearly immediate benefit to wildlife population, such as ducks, pheasants, sage grouse, and the lesser prairie chicken — even grazing for elk and moose, improved habitat for pollinating honeybees, and clearer streams for trout. In one area of the northern Great Plains, known as the Prairie Pothole Region, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that duck populations have increased by 1.5 to 2 million ducks per year.  Many outdoors organizations also support CRP for its contribution to recreational activities such as hunting and fishing.

The success of CRP and a statutory limit on the number of acres that can be enrolled in the program will mean this year’s enrollment period will be one of the most competitive in recent history. The application deadline is February 26.

The most competitive applications will be those that combine multiple conservation benefits, such as water quality and wildlife habitat.

There are a lot of great conservation activities across the country, but when I think about the largest positive impacts to the rural environment, it’s only natural that the American farmer and rancher are at the top of the list.