Inland Northwest farmers may have better odds winning the lottery than remaining in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, according to new rules announced Wednesday for the program.
Thanks to changes in the popular set-aside program, a record number of people are expected to trek to local U.S. Department of Agriculture offices in March and bid for nearly $2 billion in annual land rents.
“It could be a substantial turnout,” said Paul Rogers, district conservationist for Adams and Franklin counties. “Our biggest fear is that we’ll do a determination on all of these bids but only a small percentage will be accepted.”
It could happen. The USDA will throw open the CRP to an unprecedented 240 million acres that has grown a crop in two of the past five years. But only 36.4 million acres will be enrolled.
In addition to the 350,000 landowners who may re-bid CRP ground, millions of other property owners could submit new bids to lease their land.
Landowners in Spokane County, where real estate development has turned large areas of agricultural land into 10-acre housing plots, could attempt to rent undeveloped cropland to the government for an annual rate of $30 to $80 per acre.
However, USDA officials said small lots will score low in the agriculture department’s new Environmental Benefits Index, which will be used to measure the most environmentally sensitive lands in the nation.
Land with wetlands and wildlife habitat will score high, but much of the existing CRP land in Washington has neither.
Washington’s annual rental rates under the new program will be capped at $26 to $94 per acre, depending on the type of soil, according to Rod Hamilton of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency state office in Spokane. Landowners will increase their chances if they bid lower than the caps.
“Since it’s a national competitive bid, there’s no real guidance to the magic number,” Rogers said. “It’s wide open.”
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