Area farmers are facing some big decisions on what to do with their land as hundreds of thousands of acres of USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts are due to expire in the next few months.

USDA personnel from the Farm Service agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are in the latest stages of finalizing guidance and options for producers with expiring conservation reserve program (CRP) acres.

On July 8, 2009, personnel from both agencies in the Panhandle and South Plains regions met in Lubbock to discuss how to best serve farmers and ranchers for CRP land expiring from the program.

“With so many landowners coming into our offices seeking help, uniform guidance among agencies is critical for landowners and producers to make the best decisions for land that’s coming out of the program,” said Mickey Black, NRCS assistant state conservationist for field operations in Lubbock.

The bulk of the CRP acres are in the High Plains region of the state where there is significant concern about the future of the conservation on the land. According to FSA records, over 78,000 acres expired in 2008, with an additional 680,000 to be expired in October of 2009, and over 507,000 acres in October of 2010.

FSA State Executive Director Juan Garcia addressed 150 FSA and NRCS employees in the region saying, “Many producers are going to be faced with changes, and it’s up to all of us to educate the general public and provide landowners with the options available to help them.

“This is a serious issue,” said Garcia. “The NRCS and FSA offices are making a joint effort for a successful outcome.”

According to Garcia, FSA will be able to restore crop acreage bases beginning in October, 2010. Landowners need to be aware of this information because it will be a determining factor as they decide what they will do once their land expires from the program.

Black said, “Landowners have several options, including grazing or haying the existing grass cover, making enhancements to target wildlife, putting it back into production, or utilizing it for recreational purposes.”

For long-term planning, producers will need to stay informed of the latest policies for farm programs and benefits that might affect them and their operations.

“We expect to see some producers choose to return their CRP fields back to annually-tilled cropland production,” said Don Gohmert, NRCS State Conservationist.

“Most of the acres in the CRP program are classified as Highly Erodible Land (HEL),” said Gohmert. “This type of land is very susceptible to wind and water erosion.”

NRCS and FSA will encourage producers to keep the permanent grass cover, however, in cases where the landowners’ decide to plow up the grass; the NRCS will provide alternatives to help landowners understand the need to meet certain measures that ensure those acres will not erode beyond a level that the soil can tolerate. These alternatives will help the producer apply best management practices to meet conservation compliance requirements.

Conservation compliance, which began with the 1985 Farm Bill, is still in effect. Compliance means that farmers need to control erosion on highly erodible land, which includes CRP acres, in order to stay eligible for USDA program benefits, including farm loan programs, disaster assistance, commodity price supports, and conservation programs.

According to NRCS, the most common ways farmers get out of compliance with USDA is by eliminating soil-conserving crops, such as forage species, and adding a tilled crop.

When the farmer changes his soil cover from permanent grass to annually-tilled crops, he/she should always consider conservation compliance when planning their rotations, in addition to commodity prices

Conservation compliance could entail the implementation of a crop rotation that includes high residue-producing crops like wheat or sorghum, or the installation, repair and maintenance of structural practices like terraces.

FSA and the NRCS, working with the local Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD), urges producers to contact someone at the local USDA service centers to discuss expiring CRP options and to check on eligibility for USDA benefits.

For more information, call the USDA Service Center in your county, listed under USDA in the Yellow Pages, or access the information on the Texas NRCS website.