$27M Oregon farm rental program

Oregon producers participate in many voluntary programs
By Oregon Department of Agriculture

If government rental payments to Oregon landowners currently enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program were an agricultural crop, its value of nearly $27 million would make it the state’s 25th ranked commodity. However, there is no crop grown on that land, which is exactly the way it’s supposed to be. CRP, as it is known, voluntarily takes environmentally sensitive land out of production and enhances it through resource-conserving cover crops while providing participants with rental payments. It’s a fair and popular exchange in Oregon, and one of many examples that show farmers and ranchers care about the state’s natural resources.

“Agriculture takes care of more than 17 million acres of land in Oregon,” says Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “That’s a lot of land. And as I like to say, if you didn’t have a farmer or rancher out there taking care of that land, who would be? Our producers’ participation in these conservation programs fits right in with Oregon’s general environmental consciousness.”

The US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers CRP and a host of other federal programs that help landowners help the environment in an economically viable way. FSA’s latest numbers of CRP enrollment in Oregon show 4,208 contracts involving 2,214 farms covering more than a half million acres. The first CRP signup in four years took place in August and Oregon’s agricultural landowners jumped at the opportunity to enroll. Nearly 87 percent of those seeking to participate in the program were accepted, a higher statewide average than neighboring Washington and Idaho. The latest enrollment adds 75,720 acres of environmentally-sensitive land to CRP.

“America’s farmers have always stood at the forefront of natural resource stewardship, and Oregon’s farmers and ranchers are no different,” says Lynn Voigt, FSA’s State Executive Director. “It is programs like the Conservation Reserve Program that help Oregon’s agricultural producers continue and enhance that tradition. Because of the stewardship commitment of Oregon’s producers, nearly 550,000 acres of Oregon’s most fragile topsoil are safeguarded from erosion with the CRP program.”

Nationally, about 31.2 million acres are enrolled in the program. There is room under the 32 million acre statutory cap to hold another signup in the spring. Oregon’s farmers and ranchers are expected to add more acres into the program in 2011.

CRP and related programs involve more than just leaving the land alone. Planting those lands in grass cover conserves soil and water resources while protecting and enhancing wildlife habitat. The resulting reduction of wind and soil erosion helps reduce any adverse impact agricultural land might have on water quality and other environmental concerns.

“In short, these programs make participants major contributors to increased wildlife populations, the reduction of water runoff and sedimentation, the protection of groundwater, and the improvement of Oregon’s rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams,” says Voigt.

While it is true that farmers and ranchers have an economic incentive for participation in programs like CRP, Voigt says it isn’t about paying people not to farm.

“Conservation of our nation’s environmentally sensitive lands and the natural resources associated with them remains the primary focus,” says Voigt. “Program participants sign up in furtherance of the program’s conservation objectives, but there are economic benefits as well. Producers enrolled in the CRP program plant long-term, resource-conserving covers to improve the quality of water, control soil erosion, and develop wildlife habitat. In return, FSA provides participants with the economic benefits of rental payments and cost-share assistance in connection with their 10 to 15 year contracts.”

Voigt is quick to point out that the public gets a direct benefit through enhanced natural resources.

Another popular FSA program in Oregon is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) which has funded a number of on-the-ground projects and activities. CREP funds have been used for riparian fencing to keep livestock out of streams and off streambanks. In August, FSA implemented its Conservation Loan Program. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) also has a variety of voluntary programs to protect natural resources while enhancing productivity. They include the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). And while the agencies and programs are a hodgepodge of acronyms, each contributes to putting agriculture in position to be a good environmental steward.

“Landowners are willing to protect environmentally-sensitive lands because that’s what they do naturally,” says Ray Jaindl, administrator of ODA’s Natural Resources Division. “Their goal is to protect the land for their children and their children’s children. They’ve been doing it for generations while producing a crop or raising livestock so they can maintain their livelihood as well. For growers to be successful, they need to sustain the land and water that sustains them.”

ODA’s involvement in these programs is indirect. Programs are federally funded and the technical assistance to help landowners on the ground primarily comes from the USDA agencies. However, ODA field staff works with federal partners to identify opportunities to participate in conservation programs and relay that information to landowners whenever possible. Soil and water conservation districts play a key role as well.

“We encourage landowners to take advantage of these programs,” says Jaindl. “These opportunities are good for the economy, the local rural community, and, of course, the environment.”

The take home message to the general public is simple- farmers and ranchers love the land and most are doing what they can to protect the resource. That’s something for the public to appreciate.

For more information, contact Lynn Voigt at (503) 692-1973 or Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.

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