By Sen. John Thune
Landowners have until February 26 to enroll eligible land in the current Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) general sign-up. Between the improvements that were made to CRP in the 2014 farm bill and today’s low commodity prices, both point to CRP as a useful option for South Dakota farmers and ranchers in their farming operations.
From its highly productive East River cropland to its West River grasslands, and of course the Black Hills, South Dakota is blessed with a diverse landscape. CRP has helped farmers keep the South Dakota landscape so diverse because of the patchwork of CRP-enrolled grasslands, shelterbelts, wildlife food plots, and buffer strips located in what otherwise might be large unbroken blocks of cropped acres.
Thirty years ago this year, the first CRP contract acres were approved in South Dakota, and since the enrollment of those first contracts, South Dakota’s CRP acreage grew to 1.5 million acres by 2007. Unfortunately, it has declined to about 940,000 acres today. CRP has been very popular with not only South Dakota landowners, but also with big game and upland game bird hunters, outdoor enthusiasts, and many others who enjoy outdoor recreation.
As a member of the House Agriculture Committee and now the Senate Agriculture Committee, I helped draft the last three farm bills and have paid special attention to CRP and how it could be improved. I think farmers who have not familiarized themselves with the most recent changes and improvements to CRP will be pleasantly surprised. Today there is greater flexibility in making CRP a fully working lands program, which allows for increased use of CRP vegetative cover through haying and grazing, making it a much more attractive option.
On September 30, nearly 60,000 acres of CRP-enrolled land will expire in South Dakota. Rather than remove these acres from CRP, I encourage contract holders to take a look at how much CRP has changed and improved since they first enrolled in the program 10 or 15 years ago and seriously consider re-enrolling. As spring planting season approaches, rather than applying expensive seed, fertilizer, and chemicals to grow crops that when sold will not meet production costs, I encourage farmers to consider CRP for their less productive land.
Agriculture is South Dakota’s number one industry, and it’s the farmers and ranchers who keep South Dakota one of the top agricultural states in the nation. With many of the improvements I helped include in the 2014 farm bill, CRP can do even more to help keep South Dakota at the top of the agriculture industry and continue to add to our state’s diverse landscape, increase wildlife habitat, and maintain our state’s more than $225 million annual pheasant hunting revenue.