The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is starting over again.
In considering favorable factors to allow lands in the set-aside program, it appears volcanic ash is in, wildlife covers are in, air quality is in and even salmon might be in.
Though Washington farmers were burned in the last CRP sign-up when they lost acreage eligible for federal funds, they soon will have another chance at winning money to idle a portion of their lands, prevent erosion and protect the environment.
There could be a lot of money at stake. Last May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that only 20 percent of Washington’s enrolled farmland would be accepted into the CRP program, reducing the amount of federal money to farmers in the state by $30 million. Idaho and Oregon farmers, in contrast, each had about 80 percent of their enrolled lands accepted.
Washington growers hope to recoup much of that loss in the next CRP sign-up, now scheduled for early October. Rules for that sign-up should be released soon.
Meanwhile, last week the state Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service met with farming advocates, the Department of Ecology, and the national and state departments of Fish and Wildlife to discuss the upcoming 16th CRP sign-up and possible changes to the enrollment criteria.
The FSA officials came with a USDA directive in hand. “There are several areas addressed in there that we feel are a direct response to our issues,” said Larry Albin, state executive director of the Farm Services Agency.
In particular, Washington farmers said they should qualify for CRP enrollment points on the basis of volcanic ash content in their soil. In the document, the USDA considers ash an air quality issue, making farmlands that contain a “high proportion of volcanic material,” possibly eligible for the program.
Beyond ash, “the total air quality factor from the 15th sign-up has been reworked,” Albin said. “We’ll no longer use the ZIP-code-process to determine the rankings.”
The document also addresses farmers’ options for vegetation on idled land, allowing it, for the first time, to be “tailored to the wildlife needs in the state.”
These changes are just the beginning, FSA officials say.
The state FSA office also is requesting designation for a national salmon priority area, which would make more acres eligible for CRP. “It will work well on the Oregon and Idaho borders,” Albin said.
The document didn’t cover all the concerns Washington farmers had about the 16th sign-up, including how local agencies might have input on regional rulings about what is accepted into the CRP.
Still, it’s the closest the USDA has come to allaying the fears of Washington farmers regarding the upcoming CRP sign-up.
“We need to hang tight,” said Gretchen Borck, director of issues for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. “My understanding is that (the sign-up rules are) still being formulated.”
When the USDA issues final rules for the 16th sign-up, specially trained FSA and NRCS staff will help ensure “that everybody will get the information up front,” said Karl Hipple of the NRCS.
“It will allow us to train owners and operators as well as our own people … I think we’re on the right track.”
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