Coyote Run Farm co-owner Matt Russell gives then Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris a tour of the farm in August 2019.

At the time of year when farmers plan for the upcoming growing season, many are also considering another option for managing their acres.

“All this is part of my master plan to bring back and build up my soils, and also bring back and build up the habitat on the farm,” said Justin Jordan. He and his wife Beth Jordan farm 410 acres near Lacona in Warren County.

Jordan was talking about the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays landowners to remove highly erodible and environmentally sensitive land from production. In its 35th year in 2020, CRP accounted for 23.4 million Iowa acres in 2017. The owners of those acres received $392 million in rental payments, an average of nearly $218 an acre, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That’s the highest rental rate in the nation. The national average is $81.60.

“You’re talking about a good chunk of land,” said Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agricultural economist who closely follows federal programs. “These programs do represent a sizeable cash-flow injection.”

The program is a favorite of conservation groups.

“CRP in general has been a fantastic program, in all three components: to protect our soil, to help clean our water and to re-establish wildlife habitat,” said Matt O’Connor, Iowa habitat coordinator for Pheasants Forever. “On environmentally sensitive land it gives farmers a solid income stream.”

Interest in CRP is high this year because the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, which administers the program, is accepting new acres for enrollment. It’s the first general enrollment under new rules set in the 2018 Farm Bill. Some 5.2 million acres will come off existing contracts by September, and up to 27 million new acres are authorized for enrollment.

Farmers have until Feb. 28 to apply for new CRP contracts, which would take effect in October and run 10 to 15 years. While FSA conducts special CRP enrollments for high-priority land, general enrollments are set in each farm bill and scheduled by the agency.

Jordan, a fifth-generation farmer, first enrolled in CRP in 2004, when he purchased his farm. He has about 110 acres enrolled in five separate contracts. Idling acres was key to his long-term management plan to replenish his farm’s depleted soils.

“This farm needed a rest,” he said. “It was a pretty run-down farm, which is probably the reason I could afford it. It needed to be brought back, and this was one tool I’ve used.”

On his non-CRP acres Jordan grows corn, soybeans, and hay and maintains some pasture.

“A pretty diverse, typical southern Iowa farm,” he said.

Matt Russell enrolled just 3.5 of his 110 acres in CRP, but it was a critical part of his plan to shift his farm in the southwest corner of Marion County to grazing and vegetable production.

“CRP is just one piece of a whole environmental stewardship plan for our farm,” said Russell. “When we bought our place in 2005 we got with the Knoxville (Natural Resources Conservation Service office) and looked at what we wanted to do and the programs they had to offer and came up with a plan. The CRP was one part of that.”

Russell used CRP technical assistance to fence off a ravine that ran through his pasture to prevent grazing livestock from reaching a stream that ran during rainy weather.

“It was very targeted for what they wanted to use those practices to do, which was keep the cattle off those riparian acres and transition from cropland,” he said. “It really helped with the water quality that was coming off our farm. That was the public benefit.”

Managing CRP acres requires more than simply not raising crops on them. Participants – who may be resident landowners or tenants – are required to control noxious weeds, undesirable vegetation, and pests that may threaten neighbors’ property, according to Curt Goettsch, FSA’s Iowa conservation compliance chief.

That includes re-establishing native prairie grasses and wildflowers on enrolled acres.

“I thought it might have been a headache, but that has been not the case at all,” said Jordan, who periodically burns some sections of prairie. “I spend some extra time and money to do the seeding.”

When a property owner applies for CRP, the FSA selects acres for enrollment under a system that considers their acres’ potential benefits to wildlife habitat, water and air quality, and reduced erosion against expected rental rates.

“Do the best you can and do what works for you as a landowner” is O’Conner’s advice to landowners seeking to enroll.

O’Conner, whose organization advises landowners on managing their CRP acres, said applicants can improve their chances by including pollinator habitat in their proposal. Recognizing environmental threats to bees and other insect pollinators, the USDA added pollinator habitat management to the CRP program in 2013. Pollinator habitat acres are eligible for a signing incentive and a 50-percent cost match to sow a mix of pollinator-friendly wildflowers, grasses and shrubs.

“We’re doing so much more for pollinators these days,” said O’Conner.

“They’re not as easy to manage as your native grasses,” said Jordan, who maintains some pollinator habitat on his CRP acres. “There are some additional costs.”

It takes longer to establish pollinator habitat, but O’Conner said even non-farmers notice the changed landscape.

“People would drive around and say, ‘Why are those fields full of weeds?’” he said. “Now, people are driving by and saying ‘Look at those beautiful wildflowers. Iowa’s kind of exploded in that color out there in what’s traditionally been corn and bean country.”

Russell is encouraged by a recent CRP emphasis to establish prairie strips among active cropland. Similar to buffer strips along streams to control erosion, prairie strips re-establish native prairie grasses around and even through crop fields.

“It’s an in-field practice, not just the edge of the field,” Russell said. “They’re using those strips kind of like terraces, following the contours of the field. It’s creating this rich diversity both above ground and below ground with the root structure. That’s a really exciting new practice.”

Acres accepted for CRP are still subject to state and local property taxes, with rental rates set by local FSA county committees with input from national surveys.

Based on each county’s average cash rent from the previous year, CRP rental rates have been criticized for forcing cropland rates higher.

“That’s something USDA has been worried about,” said Hart. “In years when rental rates have been declining those CRP rates are holding up the rates you can get in the marketplace. In a bad farm economy CRP becomes more attractive.”

Steve Gravelle is an agriculture correspondent for the Centerville Daily Iowegian, Clinton Herald, Knoxville Journal-Express, Ottumwa Courier and Pella Chronicle.

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