LITTLE ROCK (AGFC) - "Farm less, earn more" sounds crazy, right? But farm producers across the state lose money on cropland or pasture in many years.
However, there are a number of options farm producers may choose to change their red ink to black on their balance sheets. They also can increase their financial bottom-line while improving their farm for fish and wildlife.
What options do farmers and landowners have on their marginally productive, low-yielding, hard-to-farm, unprofitable crop fields, or pastures adjacent to rivers, creeks and streams?
According to David Long, agricultural liaison for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the Farm Service Agency's Continuous Conservation Reserve Program targets those low-yielding croplands along field edges or whole fields where producers lose money trying to farm.
"They offer significant incentives to producers to place these croplands or streamside pasturelands in good conservation and wildlife cover," Long said.
Incentives may include yearly rental payments up to 15 years, $100 per-acre, up-front Signing Incentive Payment and a 50 percent cost-share payment for establishing the practice, coupled with a 40 percent Practice Incentive Payment. In addition, most Continuous CRP practices pay an additional 20 percent on the rental payment to increase yearly payments.
Are farmers really farming less and earning more? As of December 2010, according to the FSA website, Arkansas farmers and landowners on 2,202 farms enrolled 125,664 acres in CCRP practices with an average rental payment of $70.82 per acre per year. Farmers have an option to "farm less and earn more" by using the CCRP practices to improve their financial bottom-line. It is happening on more than 2,000 farms across the state and growing as farmers learn the details of the program.
Payments are made every year, usually in October, for the duration of the contract. The CRP soil rental payments for cropland are based on the specific soil on the farm. Pasture land has an established flat rental payment by county. Pasture land CCRP practices apply only to the edges of the pasture along streams, rivers and creeks out to 180 feet, but can go wider under certain conditions.
CCRP practices include establishing conservation buffers of native grass or trees along cropland and stream edges, or returning all or a portion of low-yielding croplands to bottomland timber or wetlands. Even small portions of larger crop fields, which may be unproductive, can be placed into a conservation practice.
Not only do farm producers receive stable farm income over the 15-year CRP contract, they can improve fish and wildlife habitat significantly, which can translate into increased deer, turkey, ducks, rabbits, quail and many non-game species of wildlife on the farm, according to Long.
"For the farmer who also is a hunter, enrolling in the CCRP can provide habitat that can turn a farm that otherwise has low game population into a personal hunting resort for family and friends to enjoy with out traveling far from home to hunt while at the same time continuing farm income on these acres," Long said. "For the farmer who does not hunt but produces a high game population on CCRP lands, these wildlife paradises can be leased out for waterfowl, deer, turkey or other hunting for added farm income."
The Continuous CRP has six conservation buffer practices available to row-crop farmers. Conservation buffers for row crop lands include Filter Strips (Conservation Practice 21), Riparian Forest Buffers (CP22) and Wildlife Habitat for Upland Birds (CP33). CCRP practices for whole crop fields include CP 23 - (Wetland Restoration) and CP31 - (Bottomland Timber Establishment on Wetlands).
Eligible row-crop lands must have a cropping history of four out of six years between 2002 and 2008. If the cropland meets these basic criteria, along with a few others, there are one or more CCRP practices the producer can choose from, depending on objectives and specific cropland or pasture.
Conservation practices for pasture edges next to rivers, streams and creeks include Riparian Forest Buffers (CP22) and Marginal Pastureland Wildlife Habitat Buffer (CP29).
The Continuous CRP is a voluntary program that offers annual rental payments for 10 to 15 years, one-time incentive payments and cost-share assistance to establish high-priority conservation practices on the farm. Offers are automatically accepted, provided the acres and farmer meet minimum eligibility requirements. Farmers may sign-up anytime of year under the CCRP. There's no competition between farmers as there is in the regular CRP.
Filter strips apply mostly to the row-crop areas and offer the opportunity to establish 20- to 120-foot native grass strips along specific cropland edges, Long says. He tells the story of a row-crop farmer in Crittenden County, who signed up 18 acres around his cotton fields in 120-foot strips of native grasses and receives a yearly rental payment. The farmers asked, ‘Why isn't everybody doing this?'
Long said the biggest obstacle is getting the word out to producers.
"Once they learn of the many incentives and benefits, they will usually enroll those acres that just do not provide a profit for their investment and input costs."
In regard to stream-side areas, this is just what the doctor ordered to provide incentives for landowners to improve water quality, and fish and wildlife habitat by establishing good tree or native grass buffers, Long says.
"These incentives are available to encourage and reward farmers to reduce sedimentation and polluted runoff into rivers and streams which can also translate into increased fish and wildlife populations."
Another big benefit of the CCRP comes when a landowner leases cropland to a tenant farmer, Long said.
"Many times a landowner may have, for example, 200 acres of cropland he leases to a tenant farmer," Long said. "However, only 150 acres produce a profit while on the other 50 acres, both the tenant farmer and the landowner lose money because of various factors such as poor soil quality, the acres are drought- or flood-prone or just hard to farm for other reasons. The landowner and the tenant farmer can get together and enroll those unprofitable cropland acres into the CCRP and turn a profit on all 200 acres. It's a win-win-win for the landowner, the tenant farmer, fish and wildlife along with soil and water conservation."
Farmers may contact county FSA offices and set up appointments to discuss the CCRP. Long may be reached at 877-972-5438.
AGFC private lands biologist work at regional offices across the state and may be contacted to help farmers. These biologists may be contacted at the following offices toll-free: Jonesboro, 877-972-5438; Brinkley, 877-734-4581; Fort Smith, 877-478-1043; Monticello, 877-367-3559; Mayflower, 877-470-3650; Calico Rock, 877-297-4331; Camden, 877-836-4512 and Hope, 877-777-5580.